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Haylie Mccleney Talks Olympics Delay and Softball’s Future

CHIBA, JAPAN – AUGUST 12: Haylie Ann McCleney #8 of United States reacts against Japan during their World Championship Final match at ZOZO Marine Stadium on day eleven of the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship on August 12, 2018 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Haylie McCleney has been a member of Team USA Softball since 2013. She was a four-time All-American at Alabama, where she ended her career as the program’s all-time leader in batting average (.447), on base percentage (.569), walks (199), and triples (16). She spoke to Just Women’s Sports about how she’s handling the Olympics’ postponement and what it means for the future of her sport.

Softball gets put back into the Olympics for the first time in years. And then Tokyo 2020 is pushed back. Walk me through that. 

It was definitely better that it was postponed instead of canceled. Those two terms carry very different weights. I do think that we have a lot of really smart people in this world that are going to make health a priority at the Olympics, not only for the athletes, but for the fans and families that hopefully get to attend. I would have been a little bit nervous if we would have continued to go on tour and continue to compete and try to make the Olympics happen in a time where we’re under a global pandemic. So there’s a little bit of gratitude there.

Obviously from a completely selfish standpoint, there was an initial period of disappointment because your entire life is built around this week in July. I mean, I was supposed to get married after the Olympics, and now I have no idea when that is going to happen. Other players were going to move or buy houses or maybe retire and pursue a career outside of softball. All those plans have come to a halt.

But I think the more we just accepted the fact that it was going to be delayed, there were a lot of really cool opportunities and stories that came out of it. Most other Olympic athletes are waiting four years in between Olympic games. For softball, it’s a little bit different. We’ve been waiting 12 years and now we’re going to wait 13. So I don’t think patience is lost on us at all as a sport. We’ve had to deal with the adversity of not knowing if or when we’re ever going to be in the Olympics.

There has been some talk that the sport will be included in the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, but there’s no guarantee. Does that make this time even more important for the team?

For us, it’s this Olympics or nothing because we don’t know what the future holds. Some of us still could be playing in 2028, but that’s if softball even gets back in. For us, it is critical that, for the survival of our sport, it needs to be in the Olympics. It needs to be talked about, it needs to be discussed. International softball needs to be covered not only in our country, but countries across the world. That’s why I think that we are so scared of the Olympics being canceled. Our one and only shot could be taken away from us. And obviously we understand that the priority is people’s health and safety and well-being. We do understand that. That doesn’t make it any less difficult to think that the Olympics could still be cancelled if things do not get better. We’re in a tough spot. For us, we might not be back, with or without next summer’s games. We don’t know.

Your team was one of the first to name its entire Olympic roster prior to the cancelation. And it has since been determined that the 2020 roster will remain intact for 2021. How do you feel about that decision?

We’re very happy with it. Very pleased with it. We had formed a bond as the Olympic roster, and softball is very culture driven and team driven. It’s not necessarily always about talent, but it’s about how a group of 18 can work together. And we were just starting to figure out that process when our tour was suspended. So I think it was the right decision by USA Softball. I think it was the right decision by the United States Olympic Committee to allow us to keep that same roster because we all earned the title of being an Olympian.

We’re meeting every week and talking with each other and continuing to build some of those relationships. Before the postponement it was six months to prepare for six games and I really liked our chances. Now you’re giving us 18 months as a unit saying, “Hey, this is our roster. This is what we’re sticking with. It’s up to you. Let’s get better. Let’s find a way to become closer. When we’re given our opportunity, let’s not waste it, let’s make the most of it and go for a gold medal.” I really like our chances.

There are a few players on the Olympic roster, including Bubba Nickles and Rachel Garcia, who will return to UCLA in 2021 to play out their final college season. Do you think that having some teammates miss training leading up to next summer will affect the team?

They took 2020 off already so I think you don’t want to take away from their college experience for two entire years. And I think having them play highly competitive college softball is going to help them and us in the long run. I don’t think it’s going to hurt them. They’re still going to be involved in our team meetings. They are just going to basically be training at a different location is how I’m looking at it. What’s good is that we did get to know them quite a bit. I mean Rachel has been on the team before. Dejah was on the team in ’19 and we have gotten to know Bubba while we were on tour and training so much together.

So I don’t think it’s going to be an issue whatsoever. We’re still trying to figure out as an organization what our tour even looks like. For us to be uncertain, it wasn’t really fair for them to sacrifice another year of missing out on a college softball season when we weren’t even sure what our training camps and schedule for training as a team is even going to be.

What happens now. Any talk about what training will be like leading up to 2021?

I’m still training completely on my own. So I’m at home. I’m not going to the gym. I’m not going to a park or anything like that. I’m trying my best to stay at home and still follow all of the guidelines. And I think the majority of the team is that way also. Some people are starting to get back into their facilities. I personally am not. I’m also in between houses right now. So it’s a little bit more complicated I think for me. But yeah, I mean, we’re used to this. We always train on our own. We’re usually on our own for nine months out of the year and then go compete for three months out of the year. So it’s not something that we are not used to. We are having team meetings every week, which I really, really enjoy. Just because it allows me to get to know my teammates a little bit more. We’re actually doing mini TED talk Tuesdays where one person on the team presents for 10 to 15 minutes on something that they’re passionate about outside of softball. It’s been cool to hear what people are interested in. But as things start to open back up, I think you’re going to start to see us kind of get back into that normalcy of what we’ve been used to for the past five, six, seven years of you’re on your own training, do what you need to do, be ready when your report date is. And I have all the confidence in the world that everyone on the team is doing their best to stay ready to compete at a high level still.

You are playing for the Scrap Yard Dawgs this summer. Can you talk to me a little bit about the league you are playing in and can you give updates on what the summer games look like given the pandemic? 

So with Scrap Yard and the Pride, we are basically going on a tour around two different travel ball events and we’re going to be competing against each other. The Scrap Yard and Pride are not a part of National Pro FastPitch. Scrap Yard and Pride are independent professional organizations. So that’s why they decided to come together and form the tour as all of these travel tournaments and things are starting to open back up. That’s the avenue that we took to be able to compete. And we’ve been assured that there are going to be plenty of safety measures in place, testing and sanitation, disinfecting, all of that fun stuff will be a priority when we play.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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