The yell sounded different, more urgent. Midway through one of the U.S. Olympic softball team's games earlier this summer, Dot Richardson turned from her position at second base and looked over at one of her coaches. Something was very wrong.
"I knew right away from the way they said my name that it was something medical," said Richardson, 38, who divides her time between softball and a "civilian life" as an orthopedic surgeon. "There was a (70-year-old) man who was down in the stands, so I just threw down my glove and sprinted over to him."
By the time Richardson and the team trainer got to the man, he was not breathing and had begun turning blue. They revived him briefly, and although he died at a hospital later, Richardson felt she had done all she could.
There is the game, and then there is life. And in the last four years, Richardson has learned a lot about the difference between the two.
"Dealing with life-and-death situations like with that man, you find out what is really important," she said recently, taking a break from the team's pre-Olympic U.S. tour. "Softball is amazing, softball is incredible, softball has done wonderful things for me. But when it's all said and done, it's a game. It's just a game."
So much has changed since Atlanta in 1996, when Richardson became the public face of a team that steamrolled its way to the gold medal. As the shortstop with a gloveful of chatty one-liners, Richardson was the subject of toasts and talk shows, spending months soaking up a kind of attention softball players rarely see.
But eventually the champagne glasses were put away, the public moved on, and Richardson learned a difficult lesson about the hero-today-gone-tomorrow world of sports. Looking to build a team for the future, the American Softball Association politely told her after 17 years on the national team, she was effectively being retired. They had newer, younger players they wanted to get experience at shortstop. They wanted others to get a chance at some media attention. They did not want her any longer. It was an enormous blow, but Richardson tried to handle it by shifting her focus to her work as an orthopedic surgeon. Still, she wasn't ready to give up on the sport.
Richardson continued to attend U.S. team tryouts and, despite being rejected two years in a row, she decided to make one last case for herself in November 1998. She worked an all-night hospital shift, then drove several hours to the tryout, preparing herself once again for the sting of rejection even as she let tiny surges of hope keep her company on the road. The national team had been struggling a bit, losing to rival Australia three times, and Richardson thought they might need her again.
In the end they did, although in a different way than Richardson ever imagined. The ASA welcomed her back onto the squad not at shortstop, but at second base.
"It's a difficult thing to handle -- we want you to come back, but we need you to move over and swallow your pride and make room for someone else," said pitcher Lisa Fernandez, one of Richardson's longtime friends. "There are some people who just couldn't handle it, who would become a cancer, and it was a little strange at first.
"But Dot is so strong mentally, and she really just wants the team to win. We needed her back because if her presence is somewhere on the field we have a better chance of winning, and she came to understand that."
The most awkward moments of Richardson's transition came last year when Crystl Bustos, 22, was named her replacement at shortstop. It was harder to tell who had the worst of the situation -- Richardson, supplanted by younger and quicker competition, or Bustos, who not only had to replace a legend but who was regarded as an outsider because she had gone straight into professional softball without going through the traditional amateur camps.
For a few days, no one knew what to say in the locker room, but once the itchy newness of the situation began to wear off, it became clear Richardson and Bustos complemented each other even better than the coaches had anticipated. Richardson remained the team's leader, bubbling with experience and enthusiasm while the calm, powerful Bustos provided bat strength and precision fielding.
Other personnel issues have dogged the team -- an arbitration case involving former infielder Julie Smith only recently was settled -- but Bustos has become such an integral part of the squad that no one can imagine a lineup card without her. Leading in almost every offensive category, including batting average, runs, home runs and RBI, she has the kind of power never seen before in women's softball. Even Richardson is in awe, noting that "if you watch Crystl hit a ball, you'll cry because it's so sweet."
The two have struck up an unexpected friendship, often rooming together on the road. Bustos has found a mentor, and Richardson has found her peace, balancing her medical career with what she now knows are her final days as a U.S. softball player.
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