Tug Valley area student McKenna Nichols stood in the Logan Softball building on Sunday posing for a photo with former three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Leah O’Brien-Amico.
Nichols was wearing O’Brien-Amico’s three softball Gold Medals, won in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympic Games and was also doing double duty by eating a few bites of Dippin’ Dots as she got her picture taken.
A few of the Dippin’ Dots fell off her spoon, bouncing down on her shirt and touching one of the Gold Medals.
After taking the photo, O’Brien-Amico smiled and took notice.
“And you are covering my medals with Dippin’ Dots?” she said.
All in good fun.
Area youth softball players got a rare treat.
It wasn’t the Dippin’ Dots.
It was a chance to meet, take photos with, get autographs and learn from O’Brien-Amico, who held a free softball clinic at the Logan Softball Complex.
O’Brien-Amico, a former All-American at the University of Arizona, a national champion and a current ESPN softball analyst, was a first baseman and outfielder with the three-time Olympic Gold Medal winning United States softball team.
During a break in the clinic several area girls got a chance to touch and even wear the three Gold Medals.
A rare opportunity indeed.
Several proud parents were there to snap photos and send them straight to social media. Most of the girls had never touched, worn or even seen an Olympic medal before.
“That’s probably the biggest thing to me — just to see them smile and for them to see what it feels like to wear an Olympic Gold Medal. Hopefully we will ignite dreams inside of them,” O’Brien-Amico said.
And yes, that’s real Gold if you were wondering.
“All real. Absolutely,” she said.
Despite cold temperatures in the morning, Sunday’s daylong clinic was a huge success.
An upwards of 100 area girls from Logan, Man and Chapmanville and surrounding counties took part in the event.
O’Brien-Amico, a California native, tours the country with her softball clinics and also ministers to the nation’s youth.
“It was exciting to see the turnout with the number of girls who came out and want to get better,” she said. “I was very impressed with Lindsay Noe and her preparation for something like this. What’s neat is that I met her before at other clinics that I did with Jennie Finch. She saw how to run a clinic like this and she is trying to implement the kinds of things that we are teaching. For me, it’s exciting not only to see the knowledge that is being passed down but to be able to come in and reinforce what is being taught.”
The clinic was organized by Logan Coalfield Softball League president Lindsay Noe, who is also a former Logan High School softball player and current assistant coach.
Like all of the campers, Noe was not immune to the allure and grandeur of seeing an Olympic Gold Medal.
She said she touched them too.
“I did and I was very excited,” Noe said smiling. “She is awesome. We met Leah at Buffalo two years ago with Sarah Noe. This is the fourth time that we have seen her at clinics. It’s great to have her at our clinic. We are so very excited.”
Noe said she was thrilled to see the softball clinic be such a big success.
“If it had started out warmer I think we would have had a lot more,” she said. “This is our first clinic and it’s going pretty well. We have many coaches here. I coach a travel ball team and those players are here as instructors. My husband is an instructor. We’ve got more than 30 who are helping. Not only are we trying to teach the kids in this county we are also teaching the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles because whoever works with you at home that’s who will make you an elite softball player. We are teaching everybody to work with their kids.”
Despite the IOC discontinuing softball as a sanctioned Olympic sport following the 2008 Beijing Games, O’Brien-Amico said she sees the sport continuing to grow across the country and the world.
“I’m glad to see more opportunities for girls across the United States,” she said. “The professional softball league, the NPF, is getting bigger. To see more college scholarships being awarded that’s also key. The longer these girls play the longer they are doing better with fundamentals and they are having fun with the game. Then they can take that next step to college if they so desire.”
O’Brien-Amico said God has allowed her to use softball as a vehicle to spread the word of the Lord. She also speaks to Christian schools, organizations and churches.
Her faith in Jesus Christ comes first in her life. She shares about how Jesus can be a part of everything you do and how Jesus is a part of her softball career.
She is also the host for Christian Sports Show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, “More Than Conquerors.”
“I’ve had a lot of doors open,” O’Brien-Amico said. “God has given me some opportunities to share my faith as well as my Olympic medals. I really believe God gave me the gifts, the talent and the passion to go out and play. It is my hope that I can encourage them with the gifts and talents that they have but also, when I am allowed, I love to share that. It’s my belief in Jesus and I believe He allowed me to have softball as a platform to be able to share His love with other people. So I hope it’s not just about the medals and not just the knowledge of the game but also the love of God that they see in me.”
Noe said part of the reason of bringing O’Brien-Amico to Logan was to again spark interest in girls’ softball, which has always been big in the county but has seen a decline in recent years.
Logan County girls’ softball began shortly after Title IX in the mid-1970s with a fledgling pilot program started up by Bea Orr.
Interest grew over the years and Logan County’s three high school teams — Logan, Chapmanville and Man — brought home a combined 12 West Virginia State championships over the years, beginning with Man’s state title in 1983 and Logan’s crown three years later.
No county team has won a state title, however, since 2010 when Chapmanville Regional High School won its second straight championship.
Summer travel ball has also declined somewhat in recent years.
“We’re trying to get southern West Virginia softball back to the way that it used to be,” said Noe, who was a catcher on Logan High School’s Class AAA back-to-back state championship teams of 2001 and 2002.
Noe’s cousin Sarah Noe, a Logan Middle School eighth-grader and member of the LMS team, is a member of O’Brien-Amico’s summer travel team — a squad which is scheduled to play in the summer of 2017 in Germany.
— Leah O’Brien-Amico talks about her three Olympic experiences in Part 2 in Wednesday’s Logan Banner print edition.
(Paul Adkins is the Sports Editor of the Logan Banner. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @PAdkinsBanner).