WBSC exclusive interview with Japanese Softball mega stars Yukiko UENO and Eri YAMADA, during the XVI Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan talking about their Olympic dreams.
Yukiko Ueno is the face of the team that won a gold medal for Japan at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Ueno has celebrated her thirty sixth birthday just weeks before the WBSC Softball World Championship and she still is one of the best softball pitchers in the world. And she is greatly anticipating another chance to play in the Olympic Games.
“Softball is …compact. The ball parks are not big and this creates more unity between players and fans. It creates great appeal. As a player you feel it, because the fans get excited immediately. It could be said that players and fans play together. I think we can add excitement to the Olympics.”
Eri Yamada is another Olympic veteran. At age 34, she is in her prime as a hitter.
“Softball is the true Team Sport. There are great relationships going on between players. Our sport can give a message of friendship and kindness. I believe it’s a very important message, in the age that we are living.”
Fans are crazy about their National Team. “Here in Japan we enjoy a lot of support”, commented Yamada “I feel both support and pressure when I play at home. So, even when I get abroad, I intentionally try to think that the people at the stadium are supporting us.” Japan so far has played five games in the World Championship and has outscored the opponents 47-2. After four shut outs, Japan gave up a couple of runs to Venezuela in the fifth game.
Ueno and Yamada match perfectly. On any given day, you can expect Eri Yamada to deliver the big hit, one of pitcher’s best friends: “When Eri San gets a big hit, all players feel more secure. Not only the pitcher.” commented Ueno. At the same time, hitters know that one run would probably mean the game, when Ueno is pitching: “We know that Yukiko San can win a game also if we provide very few runs. But I always go at bat to score, we always want to add more runs” said Yamada.
The 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo.
“People will have very high expectations about Japan, so there will be enormous pressure over us. But my determination hasn’t changed a bit. I’m ready,” commented Yukiko Ueno. Talking about your determination, in 2008 in Beijing your workload was impressive. During the semi final against Australia and the final against USA you were out there for 28 innings, over 600 pitches: “I didn’t feel I pitched so much. I was determined to win a gold medal and that gave me strong determination. So, I don’t really feel I made an extra effort. Of course, the desire to win a gold medal made me work real hard. I would say I saw it as my mission.” And it ended with a gold medal around your neck: “I felt so excited. I felt like I finally I had achieved my dream.”
Since you are looking forward to playing in the Olympics, tell us a reason why baseball and softball should be on the programme after Tokyo: “As I said before, ours are the real Team Sports. In baseball and softball players need to help each other. We need to make IOC Members aware of the high ethical value that baseball and softball can represent. The Olympics are the Festival of Sports, we belong there. In Tokyo we will need the support of the people. I think we will get it, because we deserve that.”
Yukiko Ueno had something to add about this: “Baseball and softball are loved and enjoyed all over the world. If IOC Members get to know more about baseball and softball, they will love baseball and softball more. Getting IOC Members more involved around baseball and softball fields should be one of our goals.”
You both are leading examples for many young players. Can you share with us how you got started with playing softball?
“A friend invited me to play when I was ten,” recalled Ueno “I liked the sport so much from the beginning and when it was included in the 1996 Olympics I started to dream about myself playing softball in the Olympics, one day. Now I am committed to help softball remain in the Olympics permanently. That’s one of the reasons why I keep playing. I really want to help.”
Eri Yamada followed a different path: “I started playing baseball when I was six. I played baseball with boys, but at fifteen I was not allowed to play anymore, so I switched to softball.” Your hitting style reminds us of the great Ichiro Suzuki, a hitter who had extraordinary success both in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB): “I actually tried to imitate him, he is my model as a hitter.”
Eri Yamada is not the type of hitter that would celebrate a home runs with a high fist pump: “We, the Japanese people, don’t like to show our emotions. You may have not seen me with my fists high after a home run during the World Championship, but I think I celebrated that way in Beijing. If I’m fortunate enough to hit a home run in Tokyo, you will see it again.”
On a final note, since Eri San mentioned Ichiro, did Yukiko San have a role model, while developing as a pitcher? “When I was growing up, Michele Smith was playing on the Japanese Softball League and I admired her a lot.”
You won’t face Smith, when playing the USA. What about their star pitcher Monica Abbott? “She is younger than me. I don’t want to be defeated by her energy. For this reason, I’m prepared to make a huge effort.”