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Lauren Bay-Regula pitches during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Since she last pitched in a Summer Olympics for Canada nearly 13 years ago, Lauren Bay Regula has had three kids, started a fitness business, battled depression and thought she left softball for good.

Yet the 39-year-old left-handed pitcher from Trail, B.C., is among 18 women training in Fort Meyers, Fla., vying for 15 spots on a team that will compete in Tokyo this summer, hoping to win Canada’s first softball Olympic medal.

Softball and baseball are back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008, but they’re not sticking around. They were added just for Tokyo, because of their popularity in the host country. Both sports are off the program for the 2024 Paris Olympics, and it’s unclear if or when they will return.

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So Bay Regula feels the urgency to take another shot. Softball has only been included in four Olympic Summer Games – 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. She pitched for Canada in the past two, finishing fifth in Athens, then fourth in Beijing, where Canada lost a heart-breaking semi-final to Australia and missed the podium.

“I have this massive feeling of unfinished business,” Bay Regula said from Florida via Zoom. “In 2004, we wanted to believe that we had a shot; in 2008 we did believe we had a shot; but in 2021, we know for a fact we have a very good shot to do some serious damage.”

She’s one of four women from Canada’s 2008 Olympic team who are gunning for spots for Tokyo. Right-handed pitcher Danielle Lawrie-Locke, infielder Jennifer Salling and catcher Kaleigh Rafter are also on the Zoom interview. The three are in one frame on the screen, seated on the same sofa – long-time friends who were all first-time Olympians in their early 20s on Canada’s 2008 team.

The players are living in several houses Canada’s team has rented near their practice facilities. Their final shot at Olympic glory comes during a pandemic, when training plans have been redrafted numerous times and sacrifices with family and jobs prolonged through a year-long postponement, all for a Games that their loved ones aren’t allowed to attend.

Yet these women know it’s now or never and they’re savouring this final four months together – in Fort Meyers until mid-May, and then to Marion, Ill., to play a 16-game exhibition schedule before leaving for Japan in early July. All the players have images of Olympic medals as screensavers on their phones and laptops. The United States, Japan and Australia have dominated the Olympic softball podium and Canada hungers to push its way on.

Lawrie-Locke, from Langley, B.C., was just starting her standout career at the University of Washington when she played for Canada in 2008. Her younger brother – former major-leaguer Brett Lawrie – was in Beijing, too, competing for Canada’s Olympic baseball team.

The young ace didn’t pitch as much as she’d hoped at those Games. She was disappointed, but went on to have one of the best NCAA softball careers on record: back-to-back USA Softball collegiate player-of-the-year awards, led UW to a championship at the 2009 Women’s College World Series, threw six no-hitters and finished her collegiate career atop most pitching categories. She played with Canada until 2012. Since Beijing, she’s also played pro in the United States and Japan, spent four years off the field while having two daughters and became a softball TV analyst for ESPN.

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In 2017 Lawrie-Locke, while watching the World Cup of Softball on TV, heard two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist pitcher Michele Smith say she was at her best when she was in her 30s. Encouraged by the idea, Lawrie-Locke contacted Canadian coach Mark Smith and started selling him on a comeback.

She was dominant in the pitcher’s circle during three starts at the 2019 WBSC Americas qualifier in Surrey, B.C., helping Canada earn a berth to the Tokyo Olympics. With two daughters and a husband at home, plus broadcasting duties, the postponement stretched into a marathon.

“The pandemic definitely threw a wrench into all of this where I had some dark times, making this decision with my husband to keep going,” said Lawrie-Locke, nearly 34. “It may seem hard right now, but it’s short-lived. For a lot of us, we’re never going to play this game again, so we might as well enjoy it.”

Jennifer Claire Salling bats against Netherlands during the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on Aug. 10, 2018 in Chiba, Japan.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Salling, of Port Coquitlam, B.C., joined Lawrie-Locke at UW after the Olympics, helping spearhead that championship 2009 season. After school ended, she played professionally in the United States and tried to juggle that with her Team Canada obligations before eventually stepping away from the national team to focus on a pro career. By 2015, she asked Smith if she could try out for Canada’s squad for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. She made the team. Canada won gold at home, beating the United States in the final.

News came in 2016 that softball would return to the Olympics for 2020. Salling was on the fence: train hard for Tokyo or focus on a coaching career? She chose to make a run for Tokyo. She slugged .368 at the 2019 Pan Am Games as Canada took silver, then .421 at the WBSC Americas qualifier, leading Canada with 11 runs batted as the team qualified for Tokyo.

“We were the youngest in 2008,” said Salling, looking at Rafter and Lawrie-Locke. “I think having a chance to get another go at this and trying to do it better ... I think that’s the fuel to my fire.”

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Rafter celebrated her 21st birthday at the Beijing Olympics and turns 34 this summer. The native of Guelph, Ont., has been a steady presence behind the plate for Canada this whole time. After an NCAA career split between Detroit Mercy and Florida State, she played pro in Japan and learned all about the passion there for the sport. She then juggled playing for Canada with university coaching jobs at Buffalo and Virginia before putting that career on hold to train for Tokyo.

She thinks of the many players who helped Canada get to a No. 3 world ranking, but haven’t experienced the Olympics since it was last on the schedule in 2008.

“So much of me wanted to stick around to make sure that they had a good run at it,” Rafter says. “We’ve been Olympians, but there’s so many people on this team that have given everything for it, and they’re still waiting for that last piece of the puzzle to fall in place.”

Bay Regula retired after the 2008 Games and the former Oklahoma State star didn’t step on a field again until 2016, when she helped Canada win a bronze at the world championship (one of the three Canada has earned at world competitions since 2010). But it wasn’t easy, raising a daughter and two sons, running a successful gym she co-founded with her husband, and coping with depression. Her return was short-lived.

She was a TV analyst when Canada clinched its Olympic berth in 2019. She found it exhilarating. Soon Bay Regula, whose older brother Jason is a former major-leaguer, got another chance to chase a roster spot, and she was ready to erase the “heart-shattering” feeling of Beijing.

“The people on this Zoom call – we’ve had some great highs together and some really rough lows,” Bay Regula said. “But I feel like there’s something special within this team now. I have more that I want to give.”

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