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Japanese softball pitcher Yukiko Ueno during team practice in Surrey, B.C. July 14, 2011 she is widely recognized as the fastest pitcher in women's softball. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

For some sports stars, potential shines through early - a toddler swinging a tennis racquet as if born to it, a preteen hockey player skating circles around his teammates.

For Yukiko Ueno, it wasn't like that. As a young softball pitcher, she "wasn't that fast and didn't have very much control."

Things changed.

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Ueno, 28, now hurls barnburners clocked at 121 kilometres an hour. She's best known for her iron arm at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when she threw 413 pitches over three games in two days and powered Japan to a surprise 3-1 victory over the United States. She added the gold medal from that victory to the bronze she won in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where she had 31 strikeouts and allowed a total of nine hits.

This week she's been in Surrey, B.C., playing for Japan in the Scotiabank Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championship, where about 1,200 athletes have been competing in a nine-day event that concludes Sunday. When Japan took the field for its first game, there was a moment of silence for the victims of the country's devastating March tsunami.

Possessed of a cat's grace when she pitches, Ueno is equally comfortable at bat, says Lucy Casarez, an assistant coach with the Japanese team.

"She can field, hit and pitch," Casarez said of Ueno.

On Friday, Japan was second in the international division, trailing the United States and ahead of third-place Canada, whose youngest player is 16-year-old pitcher Jocelyn Cater.

Cater came up through the White Rock Renegades, a B.C. club that's placed about 200 athletes in college scholarship programs.

Ueno came up through Japan's competitive softball leagues, picking up the game at the urging of a friend. She started to pitch at 10 and was recruited to a company team as soon as she finished high school.

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Her life revolves around the sport. She plays on a company team for Renesas Electronics and is a star in Japan, where she's appeared in commercials that capture her blistering delivery in lingering slow motion.

She lives in a dorm, works in the morning and practises from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. most days. Her routine includes drills and weight training, and her closest friends are her teammates, including one she's played with for 13 years.

She's been free of career-threatening injuries, saying through Casarez that her worst injury came at 17 when she broke her back in a high-jump mishap. She spent three months in hospital and about a year in rehab before she was able to pitch again.

Using softball's distinctive whip motion, she throws fastballs, riseballs, screwballs, curveballs, chopballs and changeups. She tries not to focus on pregame rituals or talismans because she doesn't want to count on them.

Asked what her favourite thing about pitching is, she comes up with two.

The first is pitching a ball that's different, better in some way than what she's thrown before.

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The second is watching the reaction on batters' faces.

She's an ambassador for the game and an advocate for its return to the Olympics. Women's softball was introduced for the 1996 Games and had its swan song in 2008, following a 2005 decision by the International Olympic Committee, and three Olympics in which the U.S. women dominated the competition.

This month, the IOC announced that softball is among the sports shortlisted for the 2020 Games.

Ueno demurs when asked if she thinks she'll still be playing then. It's not about her, she says, it's about the kids and teenagers who are just starting to play and want to know their sport has a home in the Olympics.

To relax, she says she likes to drive; nowhere in particular, just drive.

Being in her car alone is like being in her own little world, she says. Sometimes she likes to just get away.

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Then, with a small bow and a grin, one of the fastest female pitchers in the world goes back to work.

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