Sacrifice and 13-year wait worth it for Roberts on softball's Olympics return

Pitcher Ellen Roberts will make her Olympics debut for the Aussie Spirit at the Tokyo Games Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

As Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron and Nikki Webster flew down from the rafters, an eight-year-old Ellen Roberts sat on the edge of her seat at Stadium Australia in awe.

It was magic to be among the lucky 110,000 fans that filled the stands for the iconic opening ceremony at the Sydney Games.

Roberts' mother had won two tickets from her work and taking her father's allocation, Ellen dared to dream.

"Is Tee-ball at the Olympics?" Roberts, an enthusiast, later asked her parents.

"No but softball is," they replied.

Luckily for Roberts, her softball journey had already begun.

On the fields of Westleigh in Sydney's north, Roberts played baseball with the boys as a five-year-old before later shifting her focus to the Olympic sport.

That shift coincided with the 2000 Games, which for so many millennials was the source of inspiration.

"I already loved playing softball and when I went to that opening ceremony, it ignited what I loved to do into a dream," Roberts told ESPN.

"I remember watching in 2004, I was in Year 7 and had become a good representative player, and then the 2008 Olympics. Those were the girls I desired to be like and looked up to.

"Now that softball is back in the Olympics, it's just a whole dream come true really."

Sydney 2000 did wonders for softball's exposure in Australia and the likes of Roberts could visualize their dream at the host venue of Blacktown International Sportspark.

But the absence of softball at the London and Rio Games meant the now 29-year-old had to wait an extra 13 years for that dream to come true.

Softball will make its return at the delayed Tokyo Games this week, with pitcher Roberts one of 14 players to make their Olympics debut for Australia.

Dual Olympic medallist Stacey Porter, the Aussie Spirit's captain, is the only team member to have competed at a Games before.

Roberts was playing in Italy when it was announced softball would be joining the Olympics program in Tokyo alongside baseball, as well as debut sports surfing, skateboarding, karate and sport climbing.

"Oh my gosh, I remember it happening. There was a huge excitement around the softball community," Roberts recalled.

"How softball works - we have the Olympic year and in two years' time it's the World Championships. But instead the World Championships has been the major event for baseball every two years.

"It's the best level you can compete at, but the Olympics is just a whole other level. This is truly the best stage for softball and it keeps so many softballers' dreams alive, everyone is so thankful for that."

But with keeping that dream alive comes sacrifice - something Roberts is no stranger to.

She's been based overseas for the last decade, starting with a four-year stint with the University of Memphis - where she broke 25 records including the most strike-outs in school history.

She then went to Europe to play professionally in Italy and the Netherlands, before landing in Japan.

In her last stint there in 2020, Roberts helped Minamo reach Division I in the Japanese Pro League.

But instead of staying there alongside Porter and Kaia Parnaby, who both play on SG Holdings, she opted to come home to throw everything at Spirit selection for Tokyo.

"My Japanese team Minamo really support me and my goal of making the national team, so they were happy for me to stay in Australia to be with the Spirit program for as long as I needed to be," Roberts said.

"So I came home at the end of 2019 and was meant to go back, but then we went into lockdown and I wasn't able to leave. I stayed home for most the year and near the end of it, I went back to Japan for the last part of the season.

"I returned in December and I've been with the national program since then, so it's a bit of a different journey but it has been really good.

"I wanted to give my absolute all to this program, be involved and as much of a team player as I could be.

"I want nothing more than to play for Australia at the Olympics and win a gold medal. I knew I had to give myself every opportunity to be seen and prove myself."

The Spirit were the first overseas team to arrive in Japan for the Tokyo Games on June 1, giving them optimal time to prepare after barely playing together since qualifying in 2019.

Laing Harrow's side has been based in Ota City, about 100 kilometres north of Tokyo, and under strict COVID-19 measures they've been confined to their hotel floor.

The only times they've been allowed to leave the venue is for training and to meet Japanese teams on the softball diamond.

Roberts said the team feel settled and have a daily routine, a flow they've maintained since entering the Olympic village on July 17.

"I think it's all for the right reasons and it keeps us focused on what we are here for," Roberts said.

"I spoke to some Japanese media the other day and they said, 'don't you wish you could go and see the sites of Japan?' I'm like, 'of course we would love to, but that's not what we're here for'.

"We're here for a job and are focused on what we want to achieve. Just being at the hotel and field is fine for us because it keeps us focused.

"We tried to take advantage of the time we had in Australia altogether. We played over 40 inter-squad games, I think it helped us to hit big and continue to push each other to be better.

"Now that we're here in Japan and able to play other teams, I don't think we could have prepared any better after being at home. We're making the most of it that's for sure."

Australia will launch their Olympics campaign in the first event of the entire Games, meeting the host nation Japan on July 21 at Fukushima Azuma Stadium.

"That's such a huge honour for Australia, what better way than to start the Olympics than with Australia versus Japan?" Roberts said.

"We're thrilled it's us and we get the opportunity to be in the spotlight game one, day one. We're super excited and preparing for that moment."

There are only six nations competing in softball, with the Spirit set to face the United States, Mexico, Italy, Canada and Japan in their bid for gold.

Australia has taken home one silver and three bronze medals in the four times softball has featured at the Olympics.

"Gold is our focus and our goal, it has been for a very long time. That's what we work towards every single day," Roberts said.

"It's not very hard for us to stay motivated for that, but breaking it down, and as cliché as it sounds, we're taking it one game and one day at a time."