With softball returning to the Olympics in 2020, countries around the world are developing their programs in efforts to qualify. In many sports, that means recruiting athletes from other countries. Countries that traditionally don’t excel in a given sport often reach out to athletes from overseas, hoping to get them to play in their programs. In some cases, there’s a long term goal of developing the sport in a country that hasn’t traditionally played it. In others, the goal is simply to win medals.
In the U.S., athletes in sports as disparate as ice dancing and long-distance running have gained U.S. citizenship via the “athletes of extraordinary abilities” program. This program is specifically designed to qualify elite athletes to compete for the U.S. in international competitions.
In a few cases, special bills passed in Congress have granted such citizenship more quickly to allow athletes to compete in upcoming events. As far as the IOC is concerned, as long as a country recognizes an individual as a citizen, that person is eligible to compete.
A few former Arizona softball players are going the other direction: they have gained dual citizenship from other countries to compete for national teams overseas. Former Wildcats currently playing for other countries include Brigitte del Ponte for Mexico, Chelsea Suitos for the Philippines, and Michelle Floyd for Venezuela.
Some countries offer dual citizenship to those born elsewhere as long as their parents held citizenship at the time of their birth. This allows first generation American-born players to play for other countries. However, just like the U.S., many countries also grant dual citizenship to athletes for competitive purposes.
Such a dual citizenship program is how Floyd ended up pitching for the Venezuela National Team. She has already gained Venezuelan citizenship and is eligible to compete in Olympic qualifying. Despite the unorthodox method of joining the team, she is devoted to her new county.
“I am committed to this team and this country. I intend to play as long as I can, and the goal with this team is qualifying for 2020,” Floyd said.
Since leaving UA, Floyd has been playing in Italy for A.B. Caronno of the Italian Baseball Softball Federation. While pursuing her professional career in Caronno Pertusella, a town in the Varese province of northwestern Italy, Floyd had the opportunity to live and play with women from around the world.
“My roommate in Italy is a Venezuela Olympian softball player, so that’s how the initial contact was made. I have been with the team since May,” Floyd said.
Floyd is one of three U.S.-born players on the Venezuela national team, joining former members of Cal State Fullerton and Ohio State softball programs. She also has several Venezuela-born teammates who played collegiate softball in the U.S. As a result, most of the team speaks English.
“I speak a little Spanish, but most of the team and coaching staff also speak English, so communication has not been much of an issue,” she said.
Her professional team in Italy is on a break to allow its players to compete for their national teams. So, the summer has been filled with one international tournament after another.
Three weeks ago, Floyd was with her national team at the USA Softball International Cup in Irvine, California. After that, they traveled to Barranquilla, Colombia for the Central American Games. Now, they are facing off against the best in the world at the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championships in Chiba, Japan.
While it might seem like a lot of travel, Floyd is not phased by it. The professional season in Italy keeps her occupied, but she’s still able to practice and travel with her national team.
“I have spent time in Venezuela practicing with the team as well as played with them a few months ago when they came to Italy. The travel gets a bit tiring but it’s not too hard,” she said.
Venezuela has struggled to win games against the top softball countries this summer, but Floyd is pitching well at the WBSC tournament. Her team stands at 1-4 in Group B, but she has a 2.35 ERA and a 1-1 record. With 15.1 innings pitched, she was credited with her team’s lone win in group play.
With only six countries making the 2020 Olympic tournament (including Japan, the host country), Venezuela will need to improve considerably to be there. The team is currently ranked No. 17 in the world by the WBSC, sitting behind several countries they will battle for the remaining five qualifying spots.
The team will certainly have the time and opportunity to improve enough to qualify. Since they will not get the automatic bid at this week’s world championship, they will need to place first or second in the Americas qualifying tournament to go to Tokyo.
If one of their fellow teams from the Americas places either first or second this week, Venezuela needs to finish first or second in the Americas qualifier. Currently, the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada have the best chances of doing that. The Americas qualifying tournament will feature Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada and the U.S. as their primary opponents. If one of those teams has already qualified, Venezuela will need to best two of the remaining teams to secure a berth.
If they are able to overcome those teams, it would be a return to the games for Venezuela, too. The team was in the field at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when softball was last played. Floyd hopes to be there marching with her adopted country when her sport returns in Tokyo.