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Outdoors & Recreation
Gold medals open doors for athletes
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Photo by BRIAN GOFF
Michele Smith holds the gold medals which she won in Atlanta and Sydney, as a member of the USA women’s softball team.
TREASURE ISLAND – Having just watched the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, it is obvious the excitement of winning a gold medal is clearly an unforgettable event for the young athletes. Most of them, as they age, will likely leave their sport behind and go on to other careers, which will take them through life; most but not all.

In Treasure Island lives a two-time gold medal winner who didn’t leave her sport behind. In fact, by all accounts, she has dedicated her life to make her sport better.

Michele Smith was a pitcher on the USA gold medal winning women’s softball teams in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney, Australia, in 2000. Now, at 46, she continues to be involved in softball, a sport that has captivated her since she was a teenager.

“I played softball in high school,” she said. “I loved the sport. I started to pitch as a sophomore and that led to a scholarship. I had been heavily recruited and ended up going to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma.”

Smith played a lot of softball in her high school and university years, but she says the highlight of her career was the Olympics.

“It was quite a thrill and honor to represent your country,” she said. “Atlanta was first, and my family and friends and coaches and so many other people came to support us. It was such a great opportunity and great success for women. Title 9 passed in the ’70’s and Atlanta showed what it could do. It showed girls could do just as well as boys.”

Smith, who is a softball analyst for ESPN, has dedicated her life and career to softball in many ways, from encouraging young people to get into the sport to encouraging communities to upgrade their facilities.

“Softball is one of those sports that people can play at any age,” she said. “There are a lot of great slow-pitch community teams, and at the youth level there are a lot of travelling teams which bring a lot of people into a town where a tournament is held, it has become big business.”

For that, Smith said, a community should build more up-to-date facilities to attract those tournaments and those people.

“We need better facilities to attract more people. It has a major impact on hotels and restaurants, and once those people come here, they will come back,” she said. “Sports tourism has become a very big thing in the last five to 10 years.”

Smith said there are a couple of Pinellas County communities that really get it.

“Madeira Beach is one. They are building a new community center and they can use their fields to host events, they are a great community asset,” she said. “Clearwater has led the way in recognizing how facilities drive the economy.”

She says Clearwater has programs available to help young people get involved in the sport.

“Clearwater for Youth is a program that ensures that funding is available for children. We need to make sure that our children are having fun and there are opportunities. Softball is continuing to grow and is a great team sport for girls.”

The man who heads up the Clearwater Parks and Recreation Department is well aware of his city’s leadership in promoting softball. Kevin Dunbar says it is a source of pride in the city.

“Softball is a huge part of the Clearwater community,” he said. “Back in 2004, Sports Illustrated picked Clearwater as the No. 1 sports town in Florida because of our involvement in softball. We do so much slow-pitch and fast-pitch that we have become a softball mecca.”

Clearwater’s involvement in softball goes back to the city’s original Parks and Recreation Director, Eddie Moore. Moore and his family were instrumental in establishing the Clearwater Bombers softball program and the highlight of his career, according to Dunbar, was the Atlanta Olympics.

“He went to Atlanta and saw the softball games, and then he passed away a couple of months later,” Dunbar said.

No doubt Moore saw Michele Smith pitch. She was important then and Dunbar says she’s even more important now.

“Michele is incredibly important,” he said. “Michele is the Babe Ruth of Women’s fast pitch softball and to have her, a three-time Olympian and two-time gold medal winner and the voice of softball on ESPN, helping us at both the youth and collegiate levels is tremendous. She is a tremendous wealth of knowledge and an asset and a great proponent for female athletes.”

Smith grew up in New Jersey and moved to Florida full time in 2000 when she built her home on Treasure Island. She was disappointed when the International Olympic Committee dropped softball from the Olympics after a vote in 2005 in Singapore.

“The IOC wanted golf and rugby, and they can only have 28 sports, so they pulled out softball and baseball,” she said. “Olympics are supposed to be about what the children are playing.”

To that end, Smith is confident the sport will be back in the Olympics by 2020.

“There is a really good chance that the IOC is going to look at putting baseball and softball back in the 2020 games in Tokyo,” she said. “That is the best chance and it will be important for those games. The Japanese have a vested interest in those sports, and I hope the IOC recognizes the sport needs to be on the program.”

In addition to her work promoting softball with cities such as Clearwater and Madeira Beach, her work with local tourism officials promoting the sport as a tourism draw, and her work at ESPN, Smith is also active on the speaking circuit. She calls her career “a kind of mish-mash.”

Behind it all was her career as an active softball star and a gold medalist, something she says she will never forget.

“It is phenomenal that all that hard work and sacrifice, if you work really hard you can come through and have that gold medal,” she said. “It is an overwhelming feeling and an emotional one; you have made your goal.”
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