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Americans begin preparations to defend Olympic softball gold

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Lisa Fernandez is making a comeback for a chance at another gold medal. She hopes it's not the last medal anyone ever wins at the Olympic Games.

Fernandez, the gold-medal winning pitcher who also led the Americans in hitting at the Athens Games, was one of 18 players selected to the U.S. roster Monday. Fernandez had taken a three-year break to give birth and take care of her first child.

"I've been away for a bit, but I am excited to be back and to continue our pursuit of excellence in terms of walking away with another gold medal," Fernandez said.

Fernandez said "there were times that I thought maybe it was going to be too tough" to return, but she never really doubted she'd be able to return after her son, Antonio, was born in December 2005. She said her family told her to keep chasing her dream, and coach Mike Candrea kept believing in her.

"The one thing that I know is going to happen is she is going to do everything she can to prepare. She has always been at the top of her game for many reasons," Candrea said. "I think she brings great experience to this ballclub and will be able to lead in a lot of different ways, whether she's on the field or she's not on the field.

"I think she has been there, she knows what it takes to prepare
and I'm just really happy for her because I know it's been tough.
As she's grown older, I don't think she's really lost much."

Fernandez and outfielder Laura Berg will be trying for their
fourth gold medals next August in Beijing, the last time softball
is scheduled to be played at the Olympics. The International
Olympic Committee voted to drop softball and baseball from the
2012 Games, and softball officials are trying to get it reinstated
for 2016.

Fernandez hasn't played with the U.S. national team since the
2004 Olympics, skipping the first three World Cup events and the
2006 world championships -- where the team won its sixth straight
title. The United States has won all three gold medals since
softball was added to the Olympics in 1996, often dominating play.

"I think it's unfortunate what happened with the removal of the
Olympic Games for 2012, but I feel like it's this team's
responsibility really to showcase what the world is going to miss
with us not being a part [of the Olympics] in 2012," Fernandez
said.

Twelve members of the 2004 gold-medal winning team are back on
the roster, including slugger Crystl Bustos and pitchers Jennie
Finch and Cat Osterman. Other veterans include Tairia Flowers,
Lovieanne Jung, Kelly Kretschman, Jessica Mendoza, Stacey Nuveman,
Jenny Topping and Natasha Watley.

The potential Olympic newcomers will be left-hander Monica
Abbott, infielders Andrea Duran and Vicky Galindo, right-hander
Alicia Hollowell, catcher Lauren Lappin and outfielder Caitlin
Lowe.

"To say anything less than that they are impressive, it doesn't
even do it justice," Fernandez said.

And really, the Olympics wouldn't have seemed the same without
Fernandez -- who led UCLA to two NCAA titles and was an idol for
many of the younger players on the U.S. team. She was the winning
pitcher in the 2000 and 2004 gold-medal games and was on the mound
for the last out back in 1996.

"Being in the arena with Lisa is like being in the arena with
no one else," said Nuveman, who'll also be returning after taking
time off leading up to the birth of her son, Chase, three months
ago.

The national team will go on a 40-city tour before the Beijing
Games, with the 15-player Olympic roster being finalized next July.
The remaining three players will be replacements for the Olympic
team.

"We're blessed with a very deep talent pool here in the United
States, and it's like cutting hairs at the end," Candrea said.
"... The tough part is going to be going from 18 to 15. Eighteen
was tough, but 15 is going to be probably the toughest thing that
we'll ever have to do."