CHIBA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Rachel Garcia #21 of United States pitches against Mexico during the Preliminary Round match at Akitsu Stadium on day two of the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on August 3, 2018 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Rachel Garcia is a pitcher and infielder for Team USA. In 2019, playing for UCLA, Garcia was named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, NFCA National Pitcher of the Year, and was both the Pac-12 Player and Pitcher of the Year. A First Team All-American, she led the Bruins to a College World Series championship, where she was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player after going 5-0 in the circle with a 1.75 ERA (and hitting a walk-off, three-run homer to send the Bruins to the Championship Series). After being named to Team USA, Garcia decided to redshirt this season in order to focus on preparing for the Olympics. 

I wanted to start with last year’s national championship, UCLA’s first in nine years. How was that team’s mentality different than in years before?  

The fall started out really rough for us. It’s always a struggle trying to find who you are as a team and identifying your core values. You have to get the freshman acclimated to the program. And we had lost Kylee Perez to graduation. She was our glue, our leader, our veteran, and we needed someone to step into that role. Things didn’t really begin to click till the season started, and it really took a group effort. We also started seeing a sports psychiatrist as a team, which really helped us. He was just super instrumental in guiding us through the process, and though we talked with him as a team, we could also individually see him off to the side if we wanted. Eventually, we were able to come together with a unified mindset, and we started playing for something that was bigger than ourselves. It was special, and you could definitely feel the “BruWin Magic.”

You hit a walk-off, extra-inning home run against Washington to put your team into the finals. Do you remember what was going through your mind then? 

You know, I honestly thought I was going to do it at the bat before. But when I did hit the walk-off, and I was running around the bases, all I could think about was my grandpa. I had lost him at the beginning of the season. I felt his presence there with me as I rounded the bases.

I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I can imagine that was quite a powerful moment against Washington. What’s it been like watching UCLA from afar this season? 

It’s exciting. And then also sometimes I miss it. But I am able to cheer them on. I recently went to watch the team play against Texas, and I was amazed at how the younger girls have stepped up to take on bigger roles since me and Bubba left. And I think it’s just going to be an exciting season for the Bruins. They have such a loaded hitting lineup, it’s going to be tough for other teams.

What were your thoughts when you heard that you made the Olympic roster?

The first person I actually contacted was Bubba Nickles, my former UCLA teammate, as she also made the team. That process was very emotional, because it’s something that you dream of when you’re a little girl, and then to think that softball was taken out of the Olympics for so long, there’s a missing generation that never got to experience this journey. So I just feel very honored and very humbled to be a part of it all.

Once you made the Olympic roster, did you already know you were going to take time off from UCLA? 

I didn’t know I would take time off. I tried to keep an open mind, and I weighed the pros and cons of sitting out a year. But when I made the initial roster, I was already enrolled in about three classes, and I had already missed the first two weeks of school. So I was so behind on everything. I decided to drop two classes and just be a part-time student for the fall. And then I just was like, you know, this is too much. I was playing too much catch up. So that was when I decided to defer this year of eligibility in order to focus on training with Team USA.

Is your plan to return to UCLA and the team next year after the Olympics? 

The plan is to definitely go back and finish school, but for now my plan is to focus on what’s in front of me. And the priority is to represent my country and win the gold medal.

Team USA just played in a couple of tournaments in preparation for the Olympics. How did that go?

It was fun. It was definitely a grind in the beginning, but once they kinda got going, things kind of slowed down a little bit and kind of got into the rhythm. And I got to play against some of my old teammates. But it’s been a journey.

What has the dynamic been like on the team given the mix of older players, younger players, players still in college? 

I think the best part about our team is that that age doesn’t really matter. I mean, you’re getting the opportunity to play at that next level so everyone is all in. It’s a great opportunity for the younger girls getting to experience it for the first time and for the older girls getting the opportunity to experience this again. Sharing that all together is pretty cool for everyone.

How would you define your personal role on the team? 

For me, it’s about being prepared to go in at any moment. It’s a lot different than in college, where things are a little bit more planned out. But with this team, it’s just a different mentality. The pace is a lot quicker.

Okay, last question, and it’s a big one: what does softball mean to you and how has it inspired your life? 

Softball has provided so much for me in my life. I mean, I never thought I’d be getting a full ride to UCLA. When I was younger, it was always a dream school for me, since they were the first collegiate softball game I ever saw. So the sport has provided me with a scholarship and an incredible college degree. It’s allowed me to play internationally and represent my country. And now it’s giving me the opportunity to play at the Olympics.

So I feel very fortunate, and I know it’s now time for me to start giving back to the sport. Whenever I get an opportunity, I go out to the local fields in my hometown to watch games or give lessons or help out with practice. Anything I can do to give back, especially since I come from such a small town, where it’s very rare to see athletes come out and be successful.