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Laura Berg: A 16-year Olympic softball career revisited

Laura Berg, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for softball and current USA assistant coach, was looking through her scheduling book recently and realized it was time for game one of the 2020 games in Tokyo, Japan.

 

“When I was going through my book, I remember it was supposed to be when we would be playing,” said Berg, from Corvallis.

 

Of course, it wasn’t to be, due to the pandemic, but Berg was just wondering how great it would be for softball to finally be back in the Olympics.

 

“Huge, huge,” she said. “It would have meant so much for the sport.”

 

It will have to wait a year, with the Games of the XXXII Olympiad scheduled to start July 23, 2021.

 

“Some of the older athletes hit their peak this year and it’s devastating to those who won’t return,” said Berg, of the one-year delay of the Olympics. “Not only do the athletes miss out, but the coaches too.”

 

After a 12-year run from 1996 until 2008, softball was taken away in a political move.

Baseball, which was also eliminated with softball after the ‘08 Games, will return to Tokyo.

 

“Softball didn’t do anything wrong to get voted out,” said Berg. “It just wasn’t fair.”

The USA lost for the first time in four Olympics finals in the ‘08 games to Japan and had to settle for a Silver Medal.

 

Berg, in her ninth year as Oregon State University head coach, was named a coach last year for the Olympic team. She was looking forward to a return to the Olympics, but this time as a teacher of the game.

 

Head coach for the Team USA will be longtime Women’s National Team leader Ken Eriksen, coach of the University of South Florida.

 

Along with Berg as assistants are Heather Tarr (Washington Head Coach), Tairia Flowers (CSUN Head Coach) and Howard Dobson (Asst. Coach at LSU).

 

Berg and twin sister, Randi, both started playing at the young age of six and both eventually played on the well-known Batbusters travel ball team coached by NFCA Hall of Fame coach Gary Haning.

 

When they entered Santa Fe High, both started as freshmen and the Chiefs defeated Hesperia, 3-1 for the CIF Southern Section 2-A Championship in 1990.

 

Other key members on that title team were pitcher Lisa Shandy, who later went on to the University of Nebraska, Carla Berk and Jennifer Janke.

 

They were all coached by David Crain.

 

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Four-time Olympic softball player, Laura Berg, shows her three gold and one silver medals. Berg was selected as an assistant coach for the USA Olympic softball team. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)

 

“I remember having a great time at Santa Fe and really got along with my teammates,” Laura Berg said. “I had a lot of fun with them.”

 

Laura, who had a nickname of “bones” as a kid, gives a lot of credit to her sister Randi for her development.

 

“I had somebody to play catch with,” Laura said. “We’re pretty competitive and we’re always competing at something.

 

“Having Randi, who was bigger and stronger than me, helped me with my career. If it wasn’t for Randi, I wouldn’t be in the Olympics.”

 

Laura and Randi had two brothers, Geoff and Greg. Geoff Berg, a ‘95 Santa Fe grad, would excel in football and baseball, while the oldest, Greg (‘88 SF grad), excelled in basketball and baseball.

 

Later in their high school career, both Laura and Randi were being recruited by colleges, with UCLA one of them.

 

“Lisa Fernandez was my host at UCLA (on her recruiting trip) for my sister and I,” Laura Berg remembers. “I was in awe of her and she showed me around the campus. She was talking to me about coming to UCLA.

 

“But I didn’t want to stay in L.A.”

 

The twins, who graduated in 1993, would eventually both go to Fresno State University.

Fernandez, who was a fixture on the US National team for years, would later become Laura Bergs’ teammate on the 1996 Olympic team.

 

Laura, who played on her first Olympic team between her sophomore and junior year at FSU in 1996, remembers how she found out about her selection to the team.

 

“In ‘96 it was a big, big tryout in Oklahoma City,” she said. “My roommate at the time was Leah O’Brien (Don Lugo HS). Somebody came and woke us up and said we were on the team.

 

“We didn’t think that we had a chance to make that ‘96 team,” Laura Berg said. “It was exciting, shocking and I wanted to call home.”

 

Just a few years earlier, coach Haning told a teammate of Laura’s that he thought she was an Olympic-caliber athlete.

 

Laura said of her Olympic accomplishments: “It’s something, as a kid, you work for your whole life with your parents helping all the way.”

 

Her parents, Harvey and Lynn were there for her in the 1996 Games in Atlanta where the USA defeated China for their first Gold Medal.

 

The USA defended its Gold Medal in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia with a victory over Japan.

 

Laura Berg has multiple memories of her experiences in the Olympics.

 

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Four-time Olympic softball player, Laura Berg, coaches 2020 Team USA player, Haylie McCleney, at first base during the 2019 Pan-American games in Peru. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)

 

In the Athens, Greece Olympiad in ‘04, Laura Berg remembers how seven or eight of her teammates had scooters. “The Olympic village was huge and we had Razors and were going all over the village. People loved it. We were the “Athletes on Scooters.”

 

Also at the Athens Games, Berg “stole” second base. Actually, she had permission with three of her teammates – Crystal Bustos got third base, O’Brien-Amico, first base, Fernandez, pitchers rubber and Stacey Nuveman, home plate.

 

“After the Gold Medal ceremony I asked the field maintenance man and the others followed,” Berg said.

 

USA defeated Australia, 5-1, in the final.

 

A special feature for all Olympic athletes was added, as they can apply to have OLY attached to their name for life. “I was telling my teammates in a reunion Zoom meeting about it,” Berg said. “You have to apply for it.” 

 

Berg returned to her Alma Mater, Fresno State as an assistant coach from 2000 to ‘03. She then became an officer in the LAPD for a year and later said, “…it just wasn’t my passion. It takes a special person to be a police officer.” Both of her brothers are police officers.

 

Berg was an assistant again at FSU in 2005 and ‘06 and was again a part of the National Team prior to her final Olympic Games in 2008.

 

Berg officially retired from Olympic competition after the ‘08 Games and did it in perfect fashion, as she dropped her cleats on home plate.

 

Her career path finally took Berg to her current job.

 

“This is my dream job,” said Berg, of her head coaching position with the Oregon State Beavers softball program. “I always wanted to make a difference. That’s why I got into coaching. I wanted to inspire athletes.

 

“I feel blessed just being here. A lot of players want to be in the Pac 12. They work so hard.”

 

In 2012, Berg, along with her 2004 Team, USA teammates were named to the Olympics Hall of Fame.

 

With an uncertain future in all of sports, the 2021 USA Olympic team and its coaches will gather sometime in November to plan for next years’ Games.

 

“Luckily, I’ve been a part of four Olympics and each one was different,” Laura Berg said.

“Laura Berg is considered to be one of the greatest outfielders to ever play the game,” it said in the USA Softball web site last year.

 

Perhaps all of her Friday nights at the batting cage with her dad, Harvey, had something to do with that.

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