The sun had just set over the rim of the brand new Atlanta Olympic Stadium on this hot and steamy August night in north Georgia.
The Opening Ceremony show was complete and President Bill Clinton, sitting alongside several dignitaries, had just declared open the Games of the XXVI Olympiad, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
A total of 196 countries had just marched in their athletes in the Parade of Nations — even those from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea as commonly known, after finally deciding to come to the games following some diplomatic coaxing from Georgia native and former President Jimmy Carter.
Just one nation — the 197th nation — was left to enter the stadium.
That nation was the United States, clad in nifty red, white and blue threads and cowboy/cowgirl hats.
A roar filled the stands.
It was probably heard all the way across the mountains to Tennessee.
It’s one of the best crowd reactions an athlete can ever receive — entering the Olympic Stadium on home soil and in a home Olympic Games.
The vast majority of athletes will never hear or never see this.
Leah O’Brien-Amico, however, experienced this.
O’Brien-Amico was a member of Team USA’s Gold Medal winning ‘96 Olympic team. It was the first ever appearance for softball in the Olympics and it came on home dirt and home grass.
O’Brien-Amico was on hand Sunday at the Logan Softball Complex to conduct a free softball clinic and shared her Olympic experience in an exclusive interview with the Logan Banner.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Games.
“Walking in with the sea of athletes was remarkable,” O’Brien-Amico recalled. “For us to be with all of the other United States Olympians and representing your country together as a unit was amazing.”
She said marching into the stadium in Atlanta at her first Olympics was one of her biggest moments as an athlete.
The US softball team marched in as a unit with Dream Teamers Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen and other big-name athletes such as Lisa Leslie (women’s basketball) and Monica Seles (tennis).
A total of 10,318 athletes — a record up until that point — took part in the Games.
“Being there with professional basketball athletes, who are at a completely different level, but now who are all representing the United States of America, was so exciting. It was great to be a part of that,” O’Brien-Amico said.
The Americans would go on to go 8-1 and beat China 3-1 in the softball Gold Medal Game, which was played nearby at Columbus, Ga.
“To me, that is the best experience, to represent your home country and play on your home soil,” O’Brien-Amico said. “And just having the pride and the honor that you have as an athlete. The goal is to win that Gold Medal but to hear your national anthem at the end is what gives you the most chills and pride to say that our country is on top.”
The Atlanta Olympics ended up being marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which claimed the life of two people and wounded 111 others.
Despite the initial cost of staging the Olympics, the Games were a financial success and had a reported $5 billion impact due in part to TV rights contracts and corporate sponsorship, which was frowned upon by the IOC which deemed Atlanta as “too commercial.”
O’Brien-Amico would go on to play first base and in the outfield for two more US Gold Medal teams, also in 2000 in Sydney, Australia and in 2004 in Athens, Greece, furthering media exposure and coverage of softball.
The 2000 team in Sydney struggled out of the gate with a 4-3 record and were fourth place in the standings but rebounded by beating host Australia 1-0 in the Gold Medal Game.
“In Sydney we actually came from behind,” O’Brien-Amico said. “We had three one-run losses. We had to claw and fight our way back. So I probably appreciate that medal the most. It was an amzing experience to be in that beautiful country.”
Four years later in 2004, O’Brien-Amico returned with Team USA in the Olympics in Athens, Greece, the home of the Ancient Olympic Games, which were held from 776 A.D. to 393 A.D. before being banned as a “Pagan ritual” and then were forgotten for 1,500 years.
Athens had hoped to host the Centennial Games in ‘96 but were beaten out in the IOC voting by Atlanta. Athens hosted the first Modern Olympic Games in 1896 following the efforts of French educator Pierre de Fredy Baron de Coubertin.
De Coubertin said, “We shall light the Olympic flame once more and this time keep it burning as an everlasting tribute to all that is great and noble in mankind.”
In Athens, the US softball team was 7-0 in the preliminary round, going on to defeat Australia 5-1 in the Gold Medal Game. Some of O’Brien-Amico’s American teammates were Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, Natasha Watley, Lisa Fernandez and Crystl Bustos.
“In Athens, Greece, just with the history of the Olympics being in that country, was special,” O’Brien-Amico said. “It was also good to play softball in a country where they really didn’t even have that sport around. That was amazing. That year we dominated. We went 9-0 and we scored 51 runs and had one run scored against us. I played for my college coach Mike Candrea and to me that was probably my best of all overall experience.”
Shortly after the Athens Games, softball and baseball received a blow as they were discontinued by the IOC as an Olympic sport.
Softball was staged one more time in 2008 in the Beijing Games in China as the Americans took the Silver Medal.
No softball was played at the Summer Olympics in London in 2012 and there won’t be any this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A softball deligation had hoped to get the sport back for Rio but the IOC instead sanctioned golf and rugby sevens.
There is hope, however.
O’Brien-Amico said this summer the IOC will decide whether or not to bring softball and baseball back for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Since the Japanese are huge fans and participants of baseball and softball the chances of getting the sports back in the Olympics seem pretty good.
O’Brien-Amico said she’s keeping her fingers crossed.
“It’s very upsetting this summer that you can’t watch softball and baseball at the Olympics in Rio and can’t watch Team USA go for the Gold Medal,” she said. “Right now, all eyes are on what the vote is going to be this summer. They will vote and we will see if softball and baseball will be in the 2020 Olympics. I believe that we have a very good shot and the fact that Japan is hosting the 2020 games in Toyko and the fact that they won the Gold Medal in softball in 2008 makes us think there’s a shot. Hopefully we will see softball back in the 2020 Olympics.”
Growing up, O’Brien-Amico said she never would have imagined playing in three Olympics all across the globe.
“As a little girl I would have never have dreamt that I would have the opportunities that I had,” she said. “I have literally traveled the entire world playing a sport. Even now I get to travel the country doing softball clinics and ESPN commentary. Just being able to share with this sport that has brought me so much joy and opportunities … and if I can encourage these young girls to take these life lessons and follow their dreams and get that college scholarship, that’s what I want to do.”
O’Brien-Amico stays busy and keeps in the game with her softball clinics across the country and also her gig with ESPN as a college softball TV announcer.
“I really enjoy the challenge of doing the ESPN games,” she said. “Getting to know the teams I see these young superstars who maybe will be able to wear the Team USA uniform if we get it back into the Olympics. I do radio for the Women’s College World Series. To be able to see that level of play I am seeing more and more athletes who are elite. Our country has continued to keep growing this sport.”
(Paul Adkins is the Sports Editor of the Logan Banner. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @PAdkinsBanner).