Gwen Svekis is a professional softball catcher who recently competed in the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited softball. A graduate of the University of Oregon, Svekis led the Ducks to three College World Series appearances and was named the NFCA Catcher of the Year. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her first season with Athletes Unlimited and what it means for the future of softball.
We thought it was going to be super dramatic and high stress. What we found was we created a culture off the field within the 56 athletes that fostered the exact opposite. It was no drama. It was a super empowering environment off the field, which I think made it extremely enjoyable on the field with the rotating teams. It was pretty easy to gel immediately because it really, really felt like one gigantic 56 person team rather than just a bunch of random groups of people thrown together. That was a huge takeaway. I think the other thing is just, it’s so exciting to see the future of our sport. Now there’s a group of us that talk almost every day. And it’s hard for us to watch baseball or college softball games or travel ball games without thinking through the Athletes Unlimited point system, which is really cool. We were watching a baseball game after the season ended, and we were like, “Oh my God, that was a 70 point hit.” It’s been really cool just to sort of feel like we truly did revolutionize our sport and we’re just so excited for the future and what it has to hold.
I was surprised at how well it went for our first year. I was expecting a few more hiccups, a few more outliers within the ranks. I think what we found is it truly did work itself out. Is it perfect? No, I think we definitely will make some tweaks to it at some point, but I think overall for the first year, it was surprising how successful it was. I know on social media, there’s a lot of chit-chat about things that need to be changed. But I think from within our system, we don’t feel like it needs to be that much different.
For me, it was mostly an afterthought and that was for a few reasons. I didn’t want to think about it during the season. I went into the season thinking I can’t get caught thinking about the point system or I will plummet. It’s the same way in normal softball. If you get caught thinking about your stats, you’re not going to do well. So I tried not to think about it. I would check at the beginning of every week and be like, “Wow, I dropped X amount of spots this week. I need to really get it together.” In that way, I thought about it, but I would not be mid-game and be like, “Oh my God, I need 10 points here to jump X, Y, and Z.”
I thought it was super rewarding, especially because I had won a lot of games being on Cat Osterman’s teams the whole time. But it was nice to feel like at the end I did well enough to get myself where I was rather than just being Cat’s catcher the whole time. It was nice to have a breakout final week and to feel like I earned that spot for my defensive play.
For starters, the eight year old in me was just so ecstatic about it. I think it was just so cool because I was tasked with trying to get Cat in the league at first. I called her giving her the first sales pitch. And when she signed up, I was like, “Okay, I want to play with someone as elite as she is.” I wanted to pick her brain, and so when we got together the first week, I was like, “Hey, I want to catch your bullpen.” I think that set the tone for our relationship.
Then straight out of the gates, we were super successful together. Some of that’s just Cat being Cat, but I also think she was immediately comfortable with me behind the plate. And then after that, we quickly got to the point where I probably didn’t even have to call pitches, and we still would have thrown a successful game together, which is every battery’s dream.
If I get offered another contract, yes, I will be playing next year. It’s cool. I’m on the player executive committee. We recruited all the players for this year and we’re starting the recruitment for next year. It’s really cool being in the conversations and re-going through it. Now there’s obviously a lot of hype backing us. Before, we were trying to convince people to take the leap of faith without really knowing what we were doing. And now there’s a lot of hype and there’s a lot of excitement.
That’s been something that’s been really exciting for us because, like I said at the beginning, it’s just so exciting to know there’s a future for our sport. The NPF [National Pro Fastpitch], we’ve survived 17 years, but I use the word “survived.” We haven’t thrived. It’s just players that aren’t ready to hang it up or that love the game and want to pay it forward to the next generation. Now, I truly feel like there’s another opportunity on the horizon that could really, really be a professional environment for these young players.
I talked to a college team yesterday and I’m looking around at the freshmen thinking, “God, I hope what we’re doing right now makes it so that you guys can play professionally one day and actually truly make it an option to play rather than playing just because you don’t know what’s next.”
I’ve been involved with Athletes Unlimited since last October. That’s when I signed on as a player, became a part of the player executive committee, and then I was consulting for them for the whole year. Right when I finished my master’s degree, I reached out and said, “Hey, listen. This is what I want to do. I want to dive into this full-time.” I went through an interview process and got hired on as the manager of player care and coordination across all sports under Athletes Unlimited. I’ve been building the volleyball league, and am now involved in our lacrosse league, handling player relations.
I work remotely, so I’m moving to Colorado with my former college roommate. I’m excited to have that quality of life, be in that environment, be able to go hiking and be outdoors. And then I’ll just be training, and then I will be in Nashville for the volleyball season. I’ll go move for that, be there for the duration of that, and then just start training again. Hopefully there’s an NPF season to supplement Athletes Unlimited. I haven’t really thought very long and hard about that and what that looks like for me, but I’ll definitely be training because I definitely plan to play in Athletes Unlimited next year.