Wait, you say. Let’s take out the word victory and replace it with opportunity.
With every opportunity each one grew taller. Does that make you feel better? You don’t even know what we are talking about but you feel much more comfortable substituting victory with opportunity. You wouldn’t want to speak too passionately about winning only to be deemed ruthless and uncaring.
But this story is different. It has a lot to do with winning, too. Actually, maybe in this case, winning is the most important thing. Maybe this story is about beating your opponent--make that every single one of them. Maybe winning is the only thing. Maybe this time someone has to win.
I can hear you yelling and screaming your retort. Vince Lombardi and dodge ball be damned, you say. America is the land of opportunity. The United States of America: The Land of Winning? It makes you squirm. We’re not talking about war here. This isn’t life or death. Having to win scares you. Gosh forbid you actually be perceived as competitive.
But this story is about winning and its direct impact on life. Its participants couldn’t afford to lose. They didn’t have a choice.
You’ve got Three Days to Learn How to Win
At least the Venezuelan National Softball Team knew what was expected. Win the Central American and Caribbean Games or the program would likely end.
No Money = No Softball. That was the pointed directive from the Venezuelan Softball Federation. From the players’ perspective there was a much stronger underlying theme. No Softball = No Future.
“The team had to win to participate in the pre-Olympics and the Pan American Games,” said Indiana University assistant coach Mickey Dean, who is in his first season as an assistant on the Venezuelan National Team. “It was the night before our first game. We were having a team meeting and the president of the Federation called and wanted an opportunity to speak to us. He was rather direct.”
His address to the team stressed the fact that the future of the Venezuelan national softball program, and in so many ways its players too, hung in the balance if the team did not leave the Games with a gold medal.
“Following his message, we told our players ‘You have to want to do this for the right reasons and it has to be about you, and your team, and not someone else’s desires. If you are worried about the money, things won’t happen. You need to think about the games, think about your team, play the way you know how to play, and don’t think about the other stuff.’”
It was the timing that made this edict tough to handle. It came on the eve of the Games. It was directed at a team that was not expected to win, place, or show. A gold medal? That was pretty much reserved for tournament favorites Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Venezuela, champions? You’ve got to be kidding.
Mickey Dean had a lot of work to do, and little time to get it done. In only his first year as an assistant with the Venezuelan Nationals, he was entrusted with the task of turning a hodgepodge of 18- to 38-year-old women into champions.
“Winning and losing is something that I guess I never consciously think about,” said Dean of the edict. “To have someone bring that to the conscious part of my mind was different.”
The timetable: three days. Less than one-half of a week was the allotted time that the coaching staff had to work with the players prior to the beginning of the Games. On the first day, Dean didn’t know the players’ names, let alone what makes them tick.
Lack of time wasn’t the only barrier. There was that language thing.
“You’ve got two people standing there, one speaks one language and the other speaks another language, but the drive to succeed for both is so high that you are able to communicate anyway,” said Dean. “That was interesting. We had to work very fast and very hard. We did defense in the morning and hitting in the afternoon. I worked with the pitchers and the catchers during the defensive section and broke it down very fundamentally.
“We started from scratch and it was amazing to see how quickly they picked up on things and how eager they were to learn. When (head coach) Kim (Wright) first went there (three years ago) one player spoke English. None of the coaches and only one of the players spoke English. Now, there are about eight players who speak it very well. They essentially learned a new language in two months. We used two players who would translate for us.”
Mickey Dean’s road to his participation on the Venezuelan staff is equally impressive. As an assistant coach at the University of Akron, his quality work with a number of elite club pitchers caught the critical eye of Kim Wright, the owner of a Canadian softball academy and the third-year head coach of the Venezuelan Nationals. She promptly added him to her staff.
“Kim had a student that I was recruiting while I was at the University of Akron,” said Dean. “We got together and she liked what I was showing some of the players. I went to the Canada Cup and that’s where I was actually asked to help with the Venezuelan team.”
“It Changes Their Entire World”
Wright was confident that Dean could more than adequately assist the team’s pitching staff. Most importantly, and the primary reason he was added to the coaching staff, was to facilitate the placement of national team members into universities in the United States.
“The first thing that she asked me to do was to place her kids into colleges and universities in the United States. Of course, we got on the horn and got 12 of their 17 kids into either a junior college or NAIA school. The youngest was 17 and the oldest was 38. That gives them training, and conditioning, and games every day when they never had that in the past.”
Education and power in the hands of Venezuelan women is beyond rare.
“Latin America is very male oriented and dominated. Their men’s softball program is unbelievable. They are very good. They started funding the women’s program because of the Olympics. The talent level is very good. Their fundamentals are very good. They don’t get an opportunity to play at a high level day in and day out. It’s hard to be a consistent team or player when you don’t play competitively at a high level every week. That’s why it is important for them to get to the United States. It gets them an education, which is power. And you are talking about a Latin American woman having a college degree. It changes their entire world.”
“I Think They Understood that they had to Win.”
San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, hosted the Games. Coaching in such a unique environment was a new experience for the Indiana assistant.
“It was my first time out of the country so it was very different to see the outskirts of San Salvador,” said Dean. “You are used to seeing rich, medium income, and poor. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of people in that medium income level. It was really very poor, along with a few elite. Their practice facility was in a very rough area, which I guess is the best way to describe it.”
Venezuela won the tournament opener…and another game…and yet another and finished the round robin round with a perfect 6-0 record. The team won both of its games in the medal round to take home the championship. This time it was about winning.
But the successes went well beyond the victories.
“The players on the Venezuelan team are not from rich families,” said Dean. “It was kind of interesting to see them before and after our games. They would take a little bit of the money that they are given by the Federation and they would buy tennis shoes, socks, and food and give it out to their families before and after the games. To be honest with you, that was the only team that I saw doing that.
“But more importantly, they began to carry themselves differently,” said Dean. “People began to comment that they couldn’t believe so and so was so tall. This opportunity was so empowering for these women.