In 2004, the U.S. Olympic softball team had one of the greatest runs in the nation’s history on its journey to chase a gold medal.
On the sidelines for all seven of Team USA’s wins was USF coach Ken Eriksen.
Eriksen served as an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team when Team USA took home its third consecutive gold medal. Although he didn’t get a moment to enjoy it then, it still remains one of his fondest memories in the sport.
“It means more to me now than it did back then,” Eriksen said. “We were really locked in at the task at hand trying to be perfect and the coaching staff spent numerous hours in preparation. It’s not until after that you get to realize what you accomplished and enjoy it.”
In 2008, Eriksen read the headline ‘Softball dropped from 2012 games.’ His chance at another gold medal was taken away and the sport took a downward turn.
“The only thing that really bugs me about it is the opportunity for more players across the world to get into the Olympics,” Eriksen said. “I’ve been there already and it was a great experience and I don’t think you can do any better than winning a gold medal.”
Lauren Gibson, a former standout at Tennessee and now a graduate assistant under Eriksen, saw her dreams and hopes of Olympic gold vanish.
“It was really disappointing. As young kids, that’s what we always worked for; we wanted to play on Team USA and we wanted to play in the Olympics,” Gibson said. “As a kid obviously I was way too young to try out for the team, but right when it was getting around time for me to be in college and about the time for me to begin to play for Team USA, (the Olympics) were taken away.”
For Eriksen, the Olympics were more than just the game, the medals and the recognition — it was about the team itself and the bond they created.
“We went through four and a half years as a unit and experienced the highs and lows of life, death of family members, births of children, you name it,” Eriksen said. “It was an emotional ride and when I look back on it, it still brings goose bumps and smiles, but it was one of the best times I’ve ever had.”
The softball community has been clawing its way back, trying to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reconsider and reinstate the sport for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan — the home country of the last team to win a softball gold medal.
In December — just months after the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 gold medal run — the IOC voted to abolish the 28-game cap on Olympic sports, opening a slim chance that softball could creep its way back in to the games — a chance that Eriksen has waited six years for, not for himself, but for the athletes.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for the girls that have never been involved,” Eriksen said. “To be on that stage with 14,000 other athletes at the Olympic Village and on the worldwide stage with the Michael Phelps, the ’Dream Team,’ Jesse Owens and all these things that went on, it’s hard to describe.”
Eriksen sees nothing but upside for the sport if it can get back into the Olympic Games.
“For me, it’s just an opportunity to get the sport back on the biggest stage in the world and that’s to be involved in the five rings,” Eriksen said. “Any time you have the five rings involved in your sport, the money comes into player growth and comes into player development.”
If softball does in fact make it to Tokyo, Eriksen is a front-runner for the head coaching spot, giving him the opportunity to coach players that have strong ties to USF such as Gibson and former USF pitcher Sara Nevins.
Nevins said she didn’t believe she would ever stick around with softball too long as a kid. But now, years later, she recognizes the importance of the chance to play for one’s country.
“It would mean a lot and be a great honor,” Nevins said. “A lot of kids dream about playing (in the Olympics) or the Team USA team in general one day. We get to represent our country and wear USA across our chest chasing a gold medal.”
Eriksen takes what he learned from his time spent with Team USA back to his own program at USF.
“It’s serious business,” Eriksen said. “You walk on to the ball field and don’t let any moment go by that you can’t take advantage of, and if you do, you’re wasting time and wasting opportunities that were given to you.“
Gibson, who spent time with Eriksen on Team USA, has only spent a short time with the Bulls, but can see the difference that experience makes.
“He watches a lot of the girls’ swings (at Team USA) and he brings bits and pieces back to USF and that helps the girls,” Gibson said. “Playing for your country is the next step and bringing that experience back to the college level helps the girls a lot in their future.”
Eriksen hopes to make it back to the Olympics one day, but even if that dream doesn’t come to fruition, he enjoys watching the progression of the sport as a whole and the effect it has on its players.
“Give it 100 percent and always live in the moment the whole time and I think once you look back after college, you can always say I gave it my all and I think that’s what I’m trying to instill in these gals,” Eriksen said. “You know, Arizona’s coach Mike Candrea, John Rittman from Stanford, myself; I think we’re all just messengers for the future, instilling some really great values in people.”