As the youngest member of the 2008 Aussie Spirit Olympic team, Justine Smethurst seemed to have a long Olympic career ahead of her.
That all looked to have ended when softball was dumped from the Olympic program after Beijing.
But now it’s back – and so is Smethurst.
Smethurst and Stacey Porter are the only two current Spirit players who have experienced the thrill of not only playing in the Olympics, but winning a medal.
When the Spirit last played in the Olympic Games, their pathway was a simple one: finish in the top four at the World Championship and pack your bags for Beijing.
But this time it’s not so easy. To be eligible for Tokyo 2020, the Australians will have to go through some sort of qualifying procedure, a hurdle that was not in place last time.
So although Smethurst has experience of playing at an Olympics, she is a rookie when it comes to qualifying for them.
The qualification rules have not yet been finalised, but a strong showing at this year’s World Championship in Chiba, Japan, surely wouldn’t hurt.
And that is Smethurst’s key focus for 2018. “We can’t be too consumed about Olympic qualification,” she says.
“While it’s important and that’s the end game for where we want to be, we also want to win a gold medal at the World Championship.
“We have to take every tournament step by step. We can’t really be thinking too far ahead of ourselves.
“The Olympic Games are still a long way away. There are still goals and stepping stones that we want to achieve on that path. The worlds are the priority, that’s what we’re trying for now.”
The 178cm Aussie Spirit pitcher was the youngest member of the team that went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, collecting a bronze medal to cap off a stellar run for the team that has earned a medal in every Olympics in which softball has been contested.
This time it will be different. Smethurst is expected to be one of the Spirit’s top pitchers in what is sure to be a tough qualification campaign against the best teams in the world.
According to Aussie Spirit Head Coach Fabian Barlow, that experience could prove vital, both for what it brings to her performances and for the knowledge she can pass on to younger players.
“With Justine’s 2008 Olympic experience, she has the opportunity to share some insight with her teammates of what they can expect at a World Championships that potentially doubles as an Olympics qualifier,” Barlow says.
“Ultimately her biggest contribution will be producing world-class performances each time she’s out on the field in August, which we all know she is capable of producing.”
Smethurst remembers the sinking feeling when softball was dumped from the Olympic program after Beijing. “It was just sad. We lost what was the pinnacle of our sport,” she says.
“Once every four years you’d see softball highlighted on TV, and as a kid you’d grow up watching your role models. It was sad to think that Beijing would be the last one.”
At that point, Smethurst’s Olympic career could have been over, as no one could predict when — or even if — softball would be reinstated. “I was hopeful, but I wouldn’t say I was ever confident. I was only 21 in Beijing, so I thought there might be another opportunity down the track, but it was never a guarantee.”
From being the youngest in the team, Smethurst is now 31 and among the most experienced. She is happy to pass on her knowledge to younger players who find themselves thrust onto the world stage.
“For me it’s about taking it one game at a time. The game we play doesn’t change. The ball’s the same size, the field’s the same size. It’s really important to remember that, but also to recognise the stage that you’re on at the same time.
“You grow and mature as a person. Ten years ago I was starry-eyed. I was playing with some of my idols on the Australian team.
“For me now, it’s all about enjoying the game.”
Smethurst began her softball career in Melbourne before moving to Queensland, which she has represented in recent National Championships.
She had a stellar college career with the University of Hawaii, in 2006-07, leading her team in most statistical categories and pitching three perfect games in her freshman year.
With her Spirit teammates, Smethurst will play in the US National Pro Fastpitch league this year as the Aussie Spirit enter the professional ranks ahead of the XV Women’s Softball World Championship in August.