Canada’s Danielle Lawrie-Locke pitches during first inning playoff action against Brazil at the Softball Americas Olympic Qualifier tournament in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday September 1, 2019. Lawrie-Locke thought she was done playing softball when the Tokyo Olympics were called off last spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada’s Danielle Lawrie-Locke pitches during first inning playoff action against Brazil at the Softball Americas Olympic Qualifier tournament in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday September 1, 2019. Lawrie-Locke thought she was done playing softball when the Tokyo Olympics were called off last spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Road to COVID-delayed Olympics a journey of growth for Canadian pitcher Lawrie-Locke

Pitcher Danielle Lawrie-Locke thought she was done playing softball when the Tokyo Olympics were called off last spring.

“I went to a really dark place right away,” said the star right-hander for the Canadian women’s team.

Lawrie-Locke came out of retirement in 2018 to make another run at an Olympic medal and the return had been gruelling, requiring monumental sacrifices like time away from her two young daughters.

When organizers announced the Games wouldn’t take place in 2020, she told her husband that was it — she was done playing softball.

“I knew in my heart of hearts that I had literally given everything I could,” Lawrie-Locke said. “I just did not understand how I could possibly do that again.”

And yet, a year later, she’s in Fort Myers, Fla., with the rest of the national squad, gearing up for the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games.

In the end, her decision to play came down to her daughters and her teammates.

Most members of the current Canadian team haven’t been to the Olympics. Softball hasn’t been included in the Games since Beijing in 2008 when Lawrie-Locke and the Canadians finished a heartbreaking fourth after losing to Australia in the semifinals.

Jennifer Salling, Kaleigh Rafter and Lauren Bay Regula all competed alongside Lawrie-Locke in Beijing and are part of the group working toward a different result in Tokyo.

“I finally just came to the conclusion that I love my team too much to let them down in this moment because it will be hard,” Lawrie-Locke said.

In order to get to Tokyo, she needed to do things a little differently. That meant taking five months off from throwing last spring and summer.

“At 33, it just made me realize that taking time away from the game doesn’t take away from the pitcher that I am,” Lawrie-Locke said. “Because I’ve been doing it for what, 20, 23 years? I know how to pitch the ball.

“It’s more about mental sanity and taking care of my mental health. And I knew that’s what I needed to do.”

For the first time in three years, she spent several months at a time at home in Seattle with her husband and their daughters, seven-year-old Madison and four-year-old Audrey.

Madison sat in bullpens while she threw and joined her for runs through their neighbourhood, an experience that only reinforced Lawrie-Locke’s motivation.

“If she sees me doing it, she believes she can do it too,” said the proud mom. “And that means everything to me.”

Training alone during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy. Lawrie-Locke has documented her highs and lows on social media, providing a glimpse into what it takes to be an elite athlete.

One post in January showed her tearful, sitting in her car before a workout and talking about how difficult it was to hear rumours about the Games being cancelled yet again.

“I’m trying to stay positive and control what I can control. But the emotions of doing it again for another year and potentially it being cancelled, it’s so hard. It literally tugs at my heart,” she said in the video, wiping her eyes.

“I think people sometimes think that training for an Olympics is so glamorous. But it’s actually the opposite of that at times. It’s a lot of lonely work where you’re in your head and in your thoughts.”

Earlier this week, Lawrie-Locke flew to Florida to join the rest of the national team. After months of solo work, she’s excited for everyone to be together for the final push to Tokyo.

“We’re ready, we need to be together and we need to fight as hard as we can until this Olympics is done,” she said. “And I know that.”

The next few months won’t be easy. On top of the physical work, the players are all spending extended stretches away from their loved ones. For Lawrie-Locke, it’s tough to be away from her girls yet again.

Still, she’s proud of her decision to come out of retirement and pursue her Olympic dreams — even if those dreams are a year late because of the pandemic.

Returning to the game has been a process of growth, Lawrie-Locke said.

“What I’ve realized is that the respect I have for the game is so important and huge, but that I’m no longer just defined by who I am as a softball player,” she explained. “Softball is not what makes Danielle Danielle.”

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