Athletes Unlimited is the final act of strange 2020 for Team USA softball players

Haylie McCleney and Team USA were just starting to finally feel like -- and get paid like -- professionals when COVID-19 put a halt to their Olympic dreams. Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

The most unfamiliar year imaginable began with the most familiar of acts.

The same day she learned that she would represent the United States in the 2020 Olympics, Haylie McCleney played catch on a field in Oklahoma City. Early that October morning, the day after Olympic tryouts concluded last fall, players waited for an email that included the final roster. Some waited in their hotel rooms, others in the lobby and still more outside. They sought isolation because no one wanted to exult or mourn in the presence of a roommate.

Softball was kicked out of the Olympics after 2008, the same year Japan stunned the U.S. to win gold. And while given a reprieve for the Tokyo Olympics, it won't return again until 2028 at the earliest. For at least the span of two decades, only the 15 women named in that morning's email would be able to call themselves U.S. Olympians. Even for McCleney, already a fixture on the national team and a world champion twice over, the pit in her stomach was unmistakable.

The Olympics are the opportunity of a lifetime for most, but for few so literally as softball players.

It's why after players learned their fates that morning and the more unfortunate departed, U.S. coach Ken Eriksen took those on the final roster to a practice field and asked them to play catch. Nothing more. Even if it technically happened with a couple of months to spare in 2019, that day marked the beginning of what promised to be the biggest year of their lives.

"That will stick out to me forever," McCleney said. "I vividly remember my first catch as an Olympian. It was pretty frigging cool."

That day was so long ago, she dryly noted, that players could still hug each other.

"Yeah, considering how the rest of the calendar year has gone," McCleney mused, "that was definitely the mountaintop so far."

Instead of returning to the biggest stage in sports this summer, softball's 2020 was shaped instead by stories that continue to shape our world. The Olympics were postponed because of a global pandemic. Amid nationwide protests focused on social justice issues, Olympians playing for an independent professional team quit one of the sport's few steady paychecks when they felt their voices were co-opted for political purposes.

Only now, with the launch of a professional league that few of them initially planned to join, are members of the U.S. national team getting back to playing softball, as Athletes Unlimited kicks off its inaugural season on Saturday (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET).

"The thing that stands out to me the most is softball players are kind of used to adversity," Cat Osterman said of the year. "We're used to having to adapt and adjust rather quickly."

Softball beyond college has for a long time offered little opportunity. Without a place in the Olympics, USA Softball struggled for funding. Events like world championships were relegated to the margins of mainstream attention. Teams came and went in National Pro Fastpitch, the summer league that offered world-class play but mostly semi-pro standards. And few of those in charge could get along -- the national program feuding with NPF, and owners in that league feuding with each other to such an extent that flagship franchises ditched the league entirely. All of which briefly faded away as the Olympic buildup commenced last winter.

Before they began a domestic tour that was supposed to last nearly five months and include around 40 games, the national team gathered for practices in December. Even that marked a change from the norm during most of the previous decade, when budgetary concerns necessitated gathering only a couple of days before a tournament or exhibition series. With stipends coming from both the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and USA Softball, players like Michelle Moultrie could focus solely on softball for the first time in almost a decade with the team.

"I think for the first time ever a lot of us really did feel like professionals," Moultrie said of the period from December through March. "We were fine just playing softball. Normally we have to have another job, find another source of income and then make a way for softball over the summertime. But for it to be December and we could train full-time and not necessarily worry about money? It was like a breath of fresh air for us and the sport of softball."

In 2012, while the rest of the world gathered for the Olympics in London, softball instead trekked that summer to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon for the ISF World Championship. A U.S. team of collegians and recent graduates who had little time to train together lost the final against Japan. Eight years later, still with a few college stars on the roster but also former Olympians Monica Abbott and Osterman and multiple-time world champions like McCleney and Moultrie, the pre-Olympic tour told a far more optimistic story.

"We were just on the road, in-season, getting paid," McCleney said. "I had never felt like that before, where I was able to focus in and really, really devote the time to put in the work with my teammates. That was the biggest part of it because we're not used to being together that long.

"It was amazing. It was completely different in a really, really good way. And I wish we could do it again. But COVID."

But COVID-19. The national team began its tour in Florida in early February. By early March, the tour had shifted to Southern California and was preparing to move north for the first time with games in the Pacific Northwest. But the day before the U.S. was supposed to play in Seattle, one of the early pandemic hotspots, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus and the NBA halted play indefinitely. USA Softball canceled the March 12 game in Seattle. McCleney recalled that she was on a redeye flight home to Florida that same night.

Within two weeks, the Olympics were officially postponed until 2021. The remaining stops on the softball tour were canceled soon thereafter. From finally feeling fully professional, players were left to train through the spring in garages, backyards and public parks -- anywhere they could set up a batting tee or bring along a family member to catch them.

The next softball game featuring any Olympians took place on June 22, when Scrap Yard Dawgs and USSSA Pride, independent professional teams that quit NPF in recent years, began what was supposed to be a month-long summer series. It lasted one game. Less than a month after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes, amid nationwide protests and an ongoing conversation about racial injustice, Scrap Yard players quit en masse after the team's general manager tweeted an image of players standing during the anthem and addressed the tweet to President Donald Trump.

Scrap Yard and Team USA's Kelsey Stewart said at the time that the action "took my voice away."

One of a small number of women of color ever to play for the national team, Moultrie wasn't part of the game between Scrap Yard and USSSA but posted messages on social media supportive of national team teammates like Stewart and their message.

"I think that's super important just for people to be able to freely tell the truth about their experiences and for others to just listen and learn," Moultrie said. "And for us to get better as a community. I see a lot of that happening. I see a lot of things happening on social media, a lot of interviews and things like that happening, and just explaining experiences. ...

"Being a Black softball player I think it's something I've kind of gotten used to, that OK, sometimes I'm going to be in an uncomfortable situation. Or sometimes my majority white teammates are not going to understand maybe something that is offensive -- but it might just be that they don't understand it."

United in walking out of a postgame meeting with Scrap Yard management the night of the opener, players remained united in the days that followed and launched This Is Us, a team with a crowdsourced funding model and dedicated to raising general awareness of racial issues, but particularly within softball -- a sport that has long struggled to grow minority participation.

"I think more at that time than any other time in my life I realized that doing the right thing is not easy," said McCleney, who missed the controversial game but was part of both Scrap Yard and This Is Us. "It was not easy for everyone to come together and play softball again. It was not easy for all of us to get on the same page with what we want to do. It was not easy for all of us to walk out on our professional organization. It wasn't easy to give up really secure money. There were just so many different things that were hard, but looking back on it, so incredibly worth it."

The new team launched a website. It obtained uniforms and other gear from companies eager to lend a hand and lined up sponsorship for the remainder of the schedule against the Pride. But the pandemic that shut down the Olympic tour hadn't abated. Within a week of returning to the field, This Is Us canceled all remaining games as a result of concerns stemming from potential exposure to someone unaffiliated with the team who tested positive for the coronavirus. Players felt the logistics of maintaining a safe environment -- something entire professional leagues and college conferences still struggle with -- was too much to take on.

For the second time in 2020, softball was on hold.

Members of the national team didn't just plan their year around the Olympics, they planned their lives based on certain expectations of this summer. McCleney and her fiancee, former All-American pitcher Kylee Hanson, put their marriage on hold until after the Olympics. In addition to a Bali vacation immediately after the Games, Osterman and her husband planned to try to have a child. Yet, having already pushed such plans back at least another year, even backup plans for the summer kept falling apart. Instead of an Olympic opener against Italy on July 21, players were once again left to find places and ways to train on their own amid health protocols.

"I think the frustration came with the expectation that I was done playing in July and just the life decisions we had made that are getting halted," Osterman said. "The frustration of that, it took its toll probably June or July. But I've moved past that now and (I'm) probably in a better head space.

"Eventually, once I started throwing again, the love of watching the ball dance always brings me back to the center."

There would be one more chance to play in 2020, with the launch of Athletes Unlimited.

Announced in March shortly before the pandemic shut down sports, Athletes Unlimited initially seemed an unlikely destination for members of the U.S. team. The timing of a season beginning in late August was unappealing for players who would have been playing almost nonstop since the start of February. A new scoring system that did away with set rosters, replaced by weekly draft, and highlighted individual champions was an additional impediment.

When she was approached early in the year, McCleney said her first question was why couldn't they just play, well, regular softball?

But Canadian Olympian and founding Athletes Unlimited member Victoria Hayward proved persistent. She approached a number of players, including McCleney and Moultrie, again after the Olympics were postponed. She assured them Athletes Unlimited still intended to play its season and steered their format concerns to AU senior director of softball Cheri Kempf, who assured them that the scoring system still valued winning above all else.

A national television contract for the league and conversations with co-founder Jon Patricof convinced them that they weren't just Charlie Brown trusting Lucy to hold the football again. And with the Olympic stipends ceasing in July, a guaranteed $10,000 with an opportunity to earn more through performance bonuses was admittedly tempting.

"It's been kind of tough in years past," said Moultrie, who initially declined the Athletes Unlimited invite because of uncertainty about the format. "For someone to come and invest in women's sports, I think that's a really cool idea. I wanted to be a part of that."

In all, eight U.S. Olympians or Olympic alternates will participate in the first Athletes Unlimited season: Amanda Chidester, Hannah Flippen, McCleney, Moultrie, Aubree Munro, Osterman, Janie Reed and Stewart.

"It's not like every man for themselves, like how I initially thought about it at first," McCleney said. "It's 56 women getting together to push the sport forward. And we're all on the same team. You just happen to compete against each other each week."

McCleney flew from Florida to Chicago last week for the six-week Athletes Unlimited season. It didn't escape her that it marked the first time she had been in an airport since that unexpected redeye flight in March, the longest stretch without a flight she could recall since middle school. It has been that kind of year, a year when sports could not escape the world around them.

It has not been a year that helped steer the sport toward a more stable future. At least not yet. Those who play it best will try again with Athletes Unlimited.

Asked if she would have walked away if she knew last fall what 2020 would actually look like, Osterman seemed to almost chuckle. Perhaps at herself. No, she wouldn't. She would have just hoped for the best and adapted as best she could.

It is what softball players always do, often to their great frustration.

"I'm living my dream, so anything that gets put on the back burner -- besides getting married -- is relatively easy to do because I love what I do so much," McCleney said. "I love being part of the team. I love watching other people succeed. I love getting better, I love trying to become absolutely perfect in this game, even though I know it's not achievable.

"I don't want to give that up any time soon. I don't think it's necessarily a sacrifice, it's just not what you would classify as a normal life. And I'm totally OK with that."