Somewhere in Dejah Mulipola’s childhood home in Garden Grove, Calif., maybe in a basement or the back of a closet — she can’t quite remember where — is an all-star jacket from her youth softball days.
Well, there’s probably more than one. The 23-year-old former Arizona softball star and current member of Team USA likely has countless mementos marking her already successful softball career.
But this particular jacket is special. In 2008, when Team USA went on tour leading up to the Beijing Olympics, Mulipola remembers confidently walking up to a few players and asking them to sign her jacket.
“I thought I was so cool going up to them and asking for autographs on my jacket,” she said with a laugh.
That was 13 years ago. It was also the last time softball was featured in the Olympic games.
Then, Dejah Mulipola was a 10-year-old all-star. Now, with softball making a return to the Summer Games, she’s an Olympian.
This year’s United States squad is full of new faces like Mulipola. In fact, it’s essentially all new players. Just two members managed to bridge the 13-year gap and make the team once again: 38-year-old Cat Osterman and 35-year-old Monica Abbott.
For Mulipola, the 2008 Olympics are a distant memory. She’s certain she watched the games, but doesn’t have any recollections past getting her jacket signed.
For Osterman, the memory feels more palpable. She recalls the disappointment of taking silver and the feeling of “unfinished business” that lingered from it.
In the years since Beijing, Osterman played professional softball before eventually retiring and becoming a coach at Texas State University. When the sport’s return to the Olympics was made official, Osterman was initially up for a spot on the coaching staff.
But it didn’t take long for the pitcher to realize that, though she had retired in 2018, her playing days weren’t really over.
“I realized deep down that I didn’t want to be part of the coaching staff,” Osterman said. “I knew that it was going to be really difficult to coach at a level where I could probably still compete.”
As Osterman set out to get back into softball shape — it’s not quite like riding a bike, she said — Mulipola was fully in the sport. She and fellow Team USA members Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles (both from UCLA) all redshirted during their senior seasons to participate in the Stand Beside Her Tour. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened — an obvious curse sprinkled with a blessing.
“It was a roller-coaster of emotions, with COVID hitting and the tour being postponed,” Mulipolah said. “But it was also a blessing because it meant I got to go back and finish out my collegiate career and still go to the Olympics in the same year.”
It also meant more time with Caitlin Lowe, Arizona’s assistant coach during Mulipola’s college career who was recently promoted to head coach of the Wildcats.
Lowe played for Team USA in Beijing, so she knows what this means to Mulipola and softball as a whole. She was one of the players hurt by the 13-year gap after her first and only Olympic appearance, but she has no regrets for herself.
When Lowe was younger, she remembers going to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox on the Fourth of July and thinking, “This is as American as it gets.”
Then she went to the Olympics, and that patriotic memory was unseated by something even stronger.
During the opening ceremonies in Beijing, the USA athletes from every sport lined up in a tunnel. She likened it to a football team getting ready to run out on the field, just on a much grander scale. The lights were off, and it was dead silent. Then someone started chanting, “USA, USA, USA!” More people joined in, then a few more, and a few more, until every athlete was chanting in unison.
“To this day, it gives me goosebumps thinking about it,” Lowe said.
Memories like that are enough for Lowe. But since 2008, young girls haven’t had a team to look up to, and for Lowe, that is the worst part.
“I never had any frustrations for myself,” she said. “But I had those frustrations for the younger generations that were coming up. Because when I was growing up, I got to watch them compete in the Olympics and that was where my goals started. That is why I worked so hard.”
Seeing softball back in the Olympics was emotional for Lowe, and seeing one of her players competing with two of her former teammates was even sweeter.
When the roster was announced, Osterman texted Lowe to say she was thrilled that Mulipola made the team. Osterman, a 38-year-old pitcher, told Lowe she loved throwing to the 23-year-old catcher.
“I texted back and said, ‘Take care of her,’” Lowe said. “And Cat texted back and said, ‘She can take care of herself.’”
In reality, the two will take care of each other and their sport. They have to, because Olympic softball finds itself in another precarious position.
After two Olympics without the sport, Tokyo serves as an interruption of that gap, but it doesn’t necessarily mark the return of softball to the Games. Softball isn’t slated for Paris in 2024, after the Olympic committee voted in favor of other sports replacing it, so like it was for Lowe, this could be Mulipola’s only chance to compete.
“To be able to compete for a gold medal is such a big deal,” Mulipola said. “It honestly feels like a dream when I talk about it, but it is real life for me. So I mean, that is pretty cool.”
🎥 A look back at the final stops of the #StandBesideHerTour.Thank you Oklahoma and Texas for coming out to support our #RoadToTokyo! @NBCOlympics - We’ll see you soon 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/DmIcRSfelO— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) June 29, 2021
🎥 A look back at the final stops of the #StandBesideHerTour.Thank you Oklahoma and Texas for coming out to support our #RoadToTokyo! @NBCOlympics - We’ll see you soon 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/DmIcRSfelO
Because of the uncertainty, Osterman knows she is lucky to be competing in her third Olympics. She remembers the nerves that came during her first Games in 2004, when she was one of the youngest players on the team. She also remembers what she calls “the pure excitement” of it all.
Now, Osterman knows what to expect. So does Abbott, but no one else on the team does.
“The novelty of it isn’t the same,” Osterman said. “Now I get to watch my teammates soak it in and see it through their eyes. I’m excited to be a part of that with them.”
Lowe is experiencing a similar sensation. Though she only got to compete in 2008, watching Mulipola is almost like being there again. As soon as her star catcher made the roster, Lowe bought tickets to go to Tokyo. Now that Olympic organizers have barred all spectators from the arenas because of COVID-19 concerns, Lowe, along with Mulipola’s friends and family, will have to watch her virtually.
Team USA will take on Italy in the opening round on July 21, when Mulipola will square off against Arizona teammate Giulia Koutsoyanopulos. The U.S. is considered the favorite, coming into the Olympics with the No. 1 ranking, followed by No. 2 Japan and No. 3 Canada.
If this is the final act for Olympic softball, Mulipola, Osterman and everyone in between want to take great care in remembering it and sending their sport off in the best way they can: by winning gold.
“We have a great chance,” Mulipola said. “The women on this team are very prepared as a unit. I think the only people who are in our way are ourselves. So, we can’t take any team lightly. We just have to play our game, go out and do what we do, and the gold medal will find its way to us.”