UCLA softball stars put collegiate careers on hold to play in Olympics
In another hotel room, Bubba Nickles, Garcia’s college teammate, was awake too. But instead of being glued to her email, waiting for the announcement of Team USA’s Olympic roster, the Bruins center fielder was feverishly trying to finish a sociology assignment that was due at noon. So when word came at 8 a.m., it was Garcia who broke the news:
They were both going to the Olympics.
“I was over the moon excited,” said Nickles, who received a text from Garcia before checking her email. “I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
For the two UCLA players, the shared moment was a dream realized as they made the final Olympic roster for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Team USA chose 15 players and three replacement athletes for its top-ranked squad as softball makes its first appearance in the Olympics since 2008.
The Pac-12 has become one of the best conferences in women’s basketball, in part because of exposure it has received from the Pac-12 Networks.
Garcia and Nickles are two of three current college players on the Olympic roster, along with Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola, who would have been a senior with the Wildcats this year. The three will redshirt this year at their respective schools with opportunities to return to college for the 2021 season.
Garcia, who has seven classes remaining before completing her history degree, and Nickles, a sociology major, will resume their studies in the fall after the Olympics. Both have one year of eligibility remaining at UCLA.
“They’re not just a now part of USA softball,” Team USA coach Ken Eriksen said of the three college players, “they’re also the future part of what’s going to go on.”
Garcia and Nickles have had Olympic aspirations since childhood.
Garcia, the two-time reigning NCAA player of the year who led the Bruins to a national championship last season, remembers mimicking different players’ pitching and hitting motions while watching the Games on TV. The Palmdale native loved pretending to be Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004) who is a UCLA assistant coach.
In hopes of one day realizing her Olympic dream, Garcia commuted from Palmdale to Corona to play with her travel ball team, the Corona Angels, every weekend outside of the high school season. On Wednesdays, Garcia, after waiting for her dad to get off work, went for extra hitting practice at 8 p.m.
From driving across Southern California for travel ball tournaments to flying across the Pacific Ocean for the Olympics, Garcia can’t believe how far the sport has taken her.
“I feel like it still hasn’t hit me,” Garcia said recently.
Nickles was disappointed to see softball eliminated from the Olympics after the 2008 Games. She enjoyed a decorated high school career at Merced High, where she was named Gatorade national player of the year in 2016, while wishing the sport would come back to the Olympics. For Nickles, who led the Bruins with 18 home runs and was second with a .390 average last season, it returned at the right moment.
“There are so many great players that never got this opportunity,” Nickles said. “Softball hasn’t been in the Olympics for 12 years now. … It’s just crazy how quickly it happened, out of the blue really.”
Although they are among the youngest players on the Olympic team, Garcia, 22, and Nickles, 21, are seasoned competitors at the international level. Along with her UCLA success, Garcia won gold medals at the 2018 world championship, 2019 Japan Cup and 2019 Pan-American Games.
Nickles had a historic performance at the junior world championships in 2017 as she hit .690 with 20 hits, 30 RBIs and six home runs, setting records in those categories for the event as the United States won gold. She also participated with the senior national team in 2018 at the International Cup and the Japan All-Star series.
Looking at the way they dominated in college and performed internationally, Eriksen had no qualms about selecting Garcia and Nickles for the Olympic team despite their age.
“The game is the game,” Eriksen said. “It’s maybe like a kid making the jump from maybe college baseball into the major leagues right away. Those two can do it. There’s not many that can, but those two can and they’ve proven it.”
Eriksen, who is taking a one-year break from his job as coach at South Florida, said Garcia, Nickles and Arizona’s Mulipola, an All-American catcher from Garden Grove Pacifica High, outperformed some older players at the Olympic trials in October.Two other former UCLA players, pitcher Ally Carda and shortstop Delaney Spaulding, also made the roster.
Nickles said the tryout process was stressful. She entered with the mentality of being a utility player, plugging up holes anywhere she could. Although she starts in center field for the Bruins, Nickles, whose given name is Madilyn but goes by a nickname her father gave her to differentiate herself among softball teammates, was a four-year starter in high school as a pitcher and shortstop.
Devin Mallory, a third-year dance major, became the first male member of the UCLA dance team this school year.
At the Olympic trials, Nickles wrote outfield as her primary position and shortstop as her second choice. She worked through defensive drills at both positions and rotated through different spots during games. The coaches kept a watchful eye on how many times she went to each spot because the process felt like an endless carousel. Nickles was happy to ride it, though.
“You take a look at the roster, she’s probably the most unique player on our team,” said Eriksen, noting that Nickles can play multiple positions, run well, hit for average and hit for power. “Madilyn, the world is her oyster right now, there’s no question.”
Garcia has been on an Olympic path for years. Even when Garcia was a redshirt freshman in 2017, Fernandez, whom many people consider to be the best softball player ever, said Garcia should be in the conversation for the 2020 Games.
With Fernandez coaching the pitching staff last year, Garcia, a right-hander, led the Bruins to the NCAA championship and earned Women’s College World Series most outstanding player honors after pitching 65 2/3 of UCLA’s 75 postseason innings, including all but two of UCLA’s WCWS innings. She went 29-1 last season with a 1.14 ERA and 286 strikeouts and hit .343 with 59 hits, 11 home runs and 57 RBIs.
While pitching for UCLA, Garcia is known to be stoic in the circle. Eriksen marveled at her maturity and ability to never waver from her plan, even against the best players in the world.
“That’s rarefied air when you get somebody like that,” Eriksen said.
Oneyka Okongwu has quickly become a force for USC’s basketball program. But the freshman forward remains level-headed, always mindful of his brother who died in 2014.
Garcia’s two-way ability brings valuable flexibility to the lineup, the coach added. With Garcia and Carda, another two-way pitcher and two-time Pac-12 player of the year (2014, 2015) from UCLA, Team USA almost starts with 11 players instead of just nine, Eriksen said.
The two right-handed pitchers complement a pair of legendary lefties in Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman. Abbot and Osterman are the only players with Olympic experience on the roster. Abbott was a 2008 silver medalist, posting a 0.29 ERA and 3-0 record in 24 innings pitched in Beijing. Osterman won gold in 2004 and silver in 2008.
Garcia is using the elite company to pick up pitching tips. Armed with a 70-mph rise ball, she is hoping to learn tricks from Osterman on how to throw a strong drop ball.
The veterans are a calming influence on the rest of the roster, said Nickles, who idolized Osterman growing up and even has an old Osterman-autographed ball bag. The Olympic veterans advise their teammates to appreciate every small step of a long journey. Nickles finds it reassuring to focus on just the present instead of things like stepping into the Olympic stadium and playing in front of thousands.
“I don’t really know what we’re going to go through,” Nickles said. “It’s the scariest, but the most exciting part about it.”
Team USA started training camp last week and embarks Tuesday on a five-month tour before the Olympics. The Stand Beside Her Tour crisscrosses the country and includes games against professional, college and all-star teams.
While Garcia and Nickles won’t be with their UCLA teammates this season, the stars will still get to see the team up close: Team USA plays UCLA at the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City on Feb. 23.
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