The Good Doctor Wields a Big Bat : Softball Star Dot Richardson Still Is in the Hunt to Become a Surgeon and an Olympic Gold Medal Winner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dot Richardson retire from softball? For anybody who knows her, it's hard enough imagining Richardson ever being tired, let alone re -tired.

"This young lady has energy beyond my capacity to understand," said Dr. Francis Schiller, the associate director of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center's orthopedic residency program, in which Richardson is a second-year resident.

"You have to meet her to see. I don't know how to describe it other than she bubbles. She has energy, both mentally and physically, that is well beyond the high average."

But, truth is, Richardson, who is considered one of the best women softball players in the world and probably will start at shortstop when the U.S. team plays in the 1996 Olympics, was ready to retire not long ago.

She was hip deep into her career as a doctor and facing 36-hour rotations in her chosen field, orthopedic surgery.

"I was prepared to not play any longer," Richardson said. "In fact, when I was in medical school, I was thinking, 'This is it.' I'd been to the Pan American Games--softball wasn't in the Olympics--been all over the world playing softball, and I was prepared. 'OK, I've gone the farthest I could go."

What changed her mind? First, the International Olympic Committee made softball, which it had kicked out of the Barcelona Games as a demonstration sport, a full-fledged medal sport for the first time in the 1996 Olympics.

Then, when she was interviewing for an orthopedic residency, she let it be known that she hoped to pursue the Olympic dream if it was OK with the hospital.

"I found out for sure that they had accepted softball as a medal sport a week before I turned in my residency match list," Richardson said. "When I was turning it in, I was like, 'Well, I'm going to have to give up this dream. I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it.'

"(During the interview process) I told them I am willing to not go to the Olympics if it means losing my position, but I'm hoping that you realize how important it is to achieve my dream for an Olympic gold medal. And if you would like an Olympian for your residency program, I'd be more than willing to be that person.

"And they have been very supportive so far. I would have to say that everyone I've worked with, I can't praise enough."

Since then, Richardson has been shuttling frantically between her medical career, which demands 80-100 hours a week, and her other career.

Richardson, a former UCLA standout, also happens to be the leading candidate to bat leadoff and play shortstop for the U.S. team.

"Things have just been falling into place," Richardson said. "It's been tough, very tough. I've been super tired at times, jumping on jets and flying across the country on weekends during medical school, sometimes during rotations here . . .

"But to do this, you're pretty committed. I feel I'm pretty committed to both medicine and softball. I don't know if you can understand, it's not just playing in a game now. It's demonstrating to the world how good softball can be, played by top players. That's something special."

Schiller says that, although the medical center wasn't originally aware of how high a level Richardson had reached athletically, the hospital encourages its residents to be well rounded, even though it knows the rigors of the resident program can be wearying to anybody.

"If she can do it and if we can work out the schedule, we're very supportive of it," Schiller said. "And her fellow residents have been very supportive of this.

"It doesn't seem to bog her down at all. She just goes and goes."

Schiller said he considers Richardson a prime candidate to move on to a one-year fellowship in orthopedic surgery after her five-year residency program is completed.

"I'm amazed she can do it," said John Kumar, a senior orthopedic resident. "I mean, the difficulty of putting in 80-100 hours a week, trying to balance the rest of the schedule, then go home and try to read and learn about surgeries she's trying to do, as well as put in the time she needs to be an athlete . . .

"I have a hard time dealing with what I need to do and I am nowhere near as involved in athletics."

Richardson, who has begun assisting in surgery, manages her time--and her vacation schedule--with long foresight and sharp precision.

For instance, to get the time off required to play in the Atlanta Games, Richardson has to plan her vacation schedules for the next four years.

"I believe there is a way," she said. "I may be able to take one of my vacations for '97 and move it down and take my vacation in '95 and move it to the end of the year.

"This way I can take vacation time for May, June and July of '96, which I believe is the requirement for the Olympic team."

When Richardson, who has been to three World Championship tournaments and three Pan American Games, has to take time off to play in various tournaments, she has to make sure her shift is covered by another resident.

On returning, Richardson owes time not only to the other resident, but to the residency program, in which participants must spend specific amounts of time in various areas. Leave for one week, work two weeks to make up.

Why do all this?

"Throughout my career, people have been telling me I was in the wrong sport, 'Your sport will never be accepted in the Olympics,' " Richardson said. "And finally, when I was willing to say goodby, whammo! It's just sitting there for me if I can just hang on a little longer.

"I love the level of competition that it's at when it reaches the Olympic level and that is the way I'd love to go out--with an Olympic gold medal.

"Wouldn't that be awesome? I get chills just thinking about it. It just seems so close now."

She recently led the U.S. team to its third gold medal in the World Championships at Newfoundland, Canada, leading the team with a .394 batting average. She also has been chosen for the 1995 U.S, team for the Pan Am Games next March in Argentina, and might be the only woman ever to have a signature-model bat endorsement.

Richardson was 13 when she began playing women's major softball, the youngest person ever to play in that league. Back then, playing for the United States in an Olympics was a distant dream.

"When I was playing then, in 1975, they talked about it getting into the Olympics, but it never happened," Richardson said. "That's why I had to keep pursuing an education. Softball helped pay for UCLA undergrad and everything else.

"I felt like I loved working with people, with anatomy, so everything directed me to being a physician. I just kept pursuing it."

And pursuing softball.

"I just met (an acquaintance) in radiology and she recognized me from UCLA undergrad," Richardson said. "She's asking me, 'Are you still playing?' She had to give it up. Her coach gave her an ultimatum--either quit the team or medicine.

"I'm very fortunate I never had that ultimatum. I've just never been faced with that, knock on wood. Most people realize how important it is, and how close I am, to achieving that dream."

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