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.

Haylie McCleney has been a member of Team USA 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).

Team USA qualified for the Olympics by reaching the gold medal game of the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship in 2018. What was it like to try and play for a championship after hearing the news? 

We only knew about an hour before warmups that we had qualified due to Japan beating Canada. It was crazy. Individually, we were dealing with all kinds of emotions, like, Oh my God, each of us now has a real shot at playing in the Olympics because we’re on this roster already. The only spot that had been secured was for Team USA as a whole, but each of us has to try out every year to earn a place on the team. So naturally when the team qualified, everyone is thinking about what they have to do to keep their spot. But then we had to immediately lock in and say, let’s go win a gold medal. We ended up doing it. We walked off in Japan, against Japan, in extra innings, which is pretty insane.

Do you remember what was going through your head when you found out you’d made the Olympic roster? 

I just realized how worth it the journey had been. I started playing for Team USA when I was a sophomore in college, and honestly, I just saw it then as more of an opportunity to play some extra games. At the time, college softball was everything. It was all anyone watched, and no one was really concerned with the national team because softball wasn’t in the Olympics. And then in 2016, which was my senior year in college, it was voted back into the Olympics. Suddenly people started paying attention. The team started to evolve. And having the opportunity, personally, to evolve with the team has been really special. To go from playing for nothing other than the opportunity to wear USA across your chest, to now having the opportunity to compete for a medal, to potentially end up on a podium with a gold medal around your neck, listening to the national anthem… It’s amazing. And it was only when the final roster was announced that I felt the full shock of like, I’m actually going to the Olympics.

What are you most looking forward to at the Olympics?

You know, most Olympic athletes know well ahead of time that their sport is going to be in the games, so they know they have a shot at competing. We had no idea until 2016. And we still don’t really know what our careers look like after 2020, because it’s not guaranteed that softball will still be in the subsequent summer games. Not a lot of teams have had the journey we’ve had, so we’re just doing everything possible to make this year count, because we don’t know if this opportunity is ever going to come again.

What does your current training schedule look like at the moment?

We’re traveling all across the country on our Olympic tour, playing in different cities against colleges and other teams. Honestly, my life has been a whirlwind since October, and it’s going to continue to be that way until late July when we head to Tokyo. And I’m totally okay with that. I’m living my best life right now. I’m playing softball for a living, I don’t have to have another job, which is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the past. I’ve always either had school or had another full time job. This is the first time in my life where I actually feel like a professional athlete, which is super cool.

What’s the team dynamic been like given the range of ages? 

I think the age difference between the oldest and the youngest is honestly really beneficial for us. We have so many different perspectives, which are great to have, especially in high pressure games. We’re playing NCAA teams on this tour, and there’s pressure to do really well as the Olympic team. There’s 78 games, and we’re supposed to win all of them. That’s a lot of stress to carry with you day after day, which is why I think having the perspective of older players, like Cat [Osterman] and Monica [Abbott], comes into play. They’ve been through this before and they know when we need to step back and remember that this is about the process and the big picture.

At the same time, sometimes you have a tense situation where, instead of panicking, everyone just needs to play free and loose like little kids again. And that’s where the younger players’ perspectives, like Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles, come in — they’re always smiling and just happy to be there. Honestly, they probably had no clue a few years ago that they would be on the Olympic roster, so they’re full of gratitude and just genuinely happy. That helps our dynamic a lot.

How would you describe the international competition? 

The closest thing I would compare it to is like the Women’s College World Series on steroids. These women are on a whole different level. I mean, they’re in their late twenties, early thirties, in the peak of their athletic prime. And the way they approach the game mentally is just on a completely different level than what you see in college. We only have six teams in our Olympic bracket, so we don’t have to worry about preparing for every single country. But these six teams have really good athletes, so we aren’t taking the competition lightly. Australia is historically a very good international program. Italy has really good pitching and they’re really scrappy at the plate. Canada is always a team that we compete with. Japan is very disciplined and they’re going to be playing in their home country. It’s going to be a battle, but we’re going to be ready for it, and I like our odds.

Transitioning to your life off the field, I know your fiance also plays softball. What’s it like being able to share that with her? 

I wouldn’t have met Kylee if it wasn’t for softball. We played on the same travel ball team when we met. I was 17. And we talked to each other for about a year and got really close, and then we started dating my freshman year of college. So we’ve been together for a little over six years now. And we are planning on getting married after the Olympics. But it’s not just my relationship with Kylee that I have to thank softball for. Almost all of the relationships I have in my life center either around the game of softball or sports in general. The coolest part about softball is not only all the cool places I have been able to travel to, but also all the cool people I’ve been able to meet. What is crazy about it is that at the root of the game, it’s a sport of failure. If I’m batting .400, that means I’m failing six out of ten times. But you can still be an All-American with that number.

Last question: is there a particular moment in your life where you were able to get over a hump because of the lessons you’ve learned as an athlete? 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from playing this game for so long is to just keep moving forward. Two years ago, I was hired for my first full time job at Florida A&M as a strength and conditioning coach, and I was immediately thrown into the fire. I was in charge of running all the strength and conditioning programs for eight teams at FAMU with only four weight racks. But even though I was in way over my head, I was able to react to the pressure and chaos because of what I’d learned playing softball. I wouldn’t have nearly as much perseverance, grit, or selflessness if it wasn’t for the sport. Every day at FAMU, I woke up at four am to get to work at six, and then woke up the next day to do it all over again. And I did that for almost two years. Now, when I look back, I know that it was the best situation I could have been in after graduating, because it helped me grow as a coach and a person. It was another reminder that I’m not sure who I would be without the sport of softball. It means everything to me, and I want to play as long as I can and as long as my body will let me. I can’t let it go.