PREVIEW-Olympics-Softball-Retirees return for surprise chance of gold

OAKLAND, Calif., June 30 (Reuters) - The surprise chance to compete for a gold medal in softball at the Tokyo Olympics has lured women out of coaching, retirement as well as 24/7 parenting duties.

Softball was part of the Olympic programme from 1996 to 2008 before being dropped by the International Olympic Committee to make way for other sports. But with softball being hugely popular in Japan, who struck gold in Beijing in 2008, the sport is making a one-off comeback at the Games to attract local fans.

United States softball pitcher Cat Osterman is among those who have been tempted to come out of retirement as she targets a third Olympic medal - 17 years after winning gold in Athens.

Aged 38, Osterman says that team practices now begin with her jokingly telling coach Ken Eriksen “what the old lady feels like today”.

But rediscovering swings and tosses, while avoiding knocks and bruises, has been a journey - even before COVID-19 extended training.

“We’re doing whatever we can to make sure my body stays in one piece,” Osterman told Reuters.

The competition in Tokyo could be shaped by how ex-retirees fare compared with veterans including pitchers Yukiko Ueno of Japan who is 38, Dallas Escobedo of Mexico and 35-year-old Monica Abbott of Team USA.

“This will be the toughest Olympics,” Eriksen said. “You have six teams that can vie for every game.”

Also coming back are 2014 retirees Danielle Lawrie, a pitcher for Canada who quit the international team after becoming a mother, and Yukiyo Mine, a catcher who resurfaced for Japan when softball’s Olympic return became official five years ago.

Australia’s Leah Parry and Justine Smethurst also came out of retirement, and Italy’s Lisa Birocci Banse and Emily Carosone put off coaching.

Canada’s 2008 ace Lauren Regula retired twice, briefly returning for the 2016 world championship. Slugging team mate Jenn Salling would have quit in 2017 had it not been for the chance to compete in Tokyo.

Mexico could be the only one of the medal contenders without an ex-retiree. Its expected average age of 25 may leave it the youngest and longest shot.

Osterman, known for wicked pitch movement, should pair with Abbott as a fearsome U.S. duo.

Lessons learned from elders in 2008 have helped Osterman resume playing: Replacing running with biking being one training change.

“She came back with a vengeance,” Eriksen said.

Fatherly advice inspired Osterman’s comeback. She said her dad noted it would be a fitting end to her career by donning the U.S. red, white and blue for one last time.

Reuniting with Eriksen played a role, too. Osterman described him as a “second father” who looked out for her early in her career, including when a caravan for the airport left without her and he returned to scoop her.

It is not lost on Osterman that an exciting Olympics tournament could boost financing of softball and enable younger players to delay retirement.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic raised a lot of uncertainty, she said: “There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to see it through.” (Reporting by Paresh Dave, editing by Pritha Sarkar)