An unexpected move enabled one of softball's greats to 'pass the torch' before hanging up her cleats for good
- Cat Osterman is one of the greatest players in the history of American softball.
- The 3-time Olympic medalist is playing a final season of Athletes Unlimited before retiring for good.
- She spoke to Insider about her softball legacy and passing the torch to young stars like Odicci Alexander.
For nearly two decades, Cat Osterman has been one of the best softball players on the planet.
The left-handed ace dominated from her first season of college with the Texas Longhorns. Multiple leagues, back-to-back pitching triple crowns, and three Olympic medals later, she's ready to walk off the mound for good.
She's still the best in the business - she didn't give up a single run in 14 innings pitched at the Tokyo games this summer - but according to Osterman herself, "my heart's just ready."
"Don't get me wrong - I still enjoy playing when I'm between the white lines," Osterman told Insider. "But I just don't wake up every day right now truly wanting to continue to do this."
Osterman's playing on borrowed time - sort of
Osterman initially retired from USA Softball in 2008 following the Beijing Olympics. Five years later, she decided to walk away from National Pro Fastpitch - a now-defunct American professional softball league - after a slew of injuries took a toll on her body and mind.
Once she got healthy, though, the three-time college player of the year recanted. She "fell in love with [softball] again," she said at the time, then played two more seasons before retiring for what she "actually thought was for good."
But then the Olympics called.
In 2018, 10 years after softball was cut from the Olympic program, news dropped that the sport would make a return in 2020. Osterman, then 35 years old, unretired for one last go on the world stage.
The pandemic, of course, put those plans on hold.
While waiting an extra year for her grand return was not ideal, the delay brought with it a "silver lining" - Athletes Unlimited
"The only reason I played in Athletes Unlimited was because the Olympics got delayed," Osterman said. "I wasn't shy about admitting it last year... COVID just happened to make that journey possible."
"And, to be honest, I'm glad it did," she added.
The 2020 Athletes Unlimited season - held in a COVID-19 "bubble" in Chicago - allowed Osterman to keep her body and mind fresh during the year-long gap. Her stellar play was a bonus. Osterman thrived in the league's athlete-centered model, in which players earn points based on team wins and individual performance. With the most points of all 57 players on the leaderboard at the season's end, Osterman won Athletes Unlimited's inaugural championship despite not even intending to participate in the league.
Beyond giving her a place to play in a time of profound uncertainty, Athletes Unlimited also offered Osterman a unique opportunity to impart wisdom and "pass the torch" to a talented group of young stars who may not "have gotten to cross paths with me" otherwise.
It's part of the reason "season one was just so impactful" for Osterman, who felt such a strong connection to the league after just a few weeks of play that she signed on for another season in 2021.
"I think that's the biggest thing - Athletes Unlimited gives that opportunity to pass this torch," Osterman said. "It is really cool to be able to talk with some of these rookie pitchers."
Osterman says she's 'an open book' for rookies. Odicci Alexander, the breakout star of the 2021 WCWS, is taking full advantage.
Alexander, the James Madison University product who captured the entire nation with her sensational pitching at the Women's College World Series earlier this year, told Insider she's been capitalizing on the opportunity to learn from "someone I've idolized for so long."
"I'm pretty sure was on everyone's radar," Alexander said of Osterman. "It's an honor being on the field with her because of what she's done with the softball world and how much she's led the sport and made it grow."
Osterman - one of the four Week 1 captains for the 2021 season - made sure to draft the right hander from the beginning.
"She has that it factor," Osterman said. "Everyone saw that at the World Series and everyone fell in love with that at the World Series. And sometimes, when you have that internal it factor, it can trump a lot of other things."
Osterman said Alexander was "super receptive" to feedback and asks questions because "she wants to get better [and] wants to be able to sustain herself in this league." For the rookie, it's obvious that Osterman is "someone younger players want to learn from."
"I mean, who else would I ask?" Alexander quipped. "She knows it all."
-Cat Osterman OLY (@catosterman) September 13, 2021
With a new generation of softball stars prepared to assume the mantle, Osterman is 'truly ready to be done'
Osterman secured her softball legacy long ago, so she had little at stake personally when she embarked upon her spontaneous Athletes Unlimited journey. But what was once a bid to stay in shape for the Olympics became something much bigger: a chance to assure she's leaving her sport better than she found it.
Now, after two seasons of helping grow the league and working with rookies to hone their craft, Osterman is really, actually, truly retiring. She means it. And with Alexander and various other newcomers taking Athletes Unlimited by storm this season, the pitching legend can rest assured that the league - and, further, her sport - are in safe hands.
"Everyone that's played in the past is proud to see how much the sport has grown," Osterman said. "Athletes Unlimited has done a great job of making sure our fans know what's going on, and the more we do that, the more the sport can grow. The future is bright."
"I look back and, to be honest, there's nothing that I feel like is left unturned," she added. "I feel like I've turned over every stone."
"I'm truly ready to be done."
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