BEIJING - Imagine if Carl Lewis had been told, at age 25, to limit his running to chasing buses when he's late for work? Or if LeBron James, when he turns 25, were forced to play rec league basketball.
How much would we have missed? How much would they have missed?
This is not so much a hypothetical issue as it is reality for U.S. Olympian Cat Osterman, who is perhaps the best left-handed softball pitcher in the world. With the medal round of the Beijing Olympics set to begin today with the unbeaten U.S. team taking on second-seeded Japan (6-1), Osterman will have her sport's biggest stage pulled out from under her in just two days.
Softball is not on the calendar for the 2012 Olympics in London. Unless the International Olympic Committee has a change of heart, there is no guarantee that softball or baseball will ever return to the schedule. But while baseball players have the major leagues to look forward to, Osterman, four months past her 25th birthday, is left with the World Cup, the Pan American Games and the Rockford Thunder of the National Pro Fastpitch League - not exactly staples on SportsCenter.
"It's frustrating because, yeah, I'm at a point when my career is not anywhere near the end," said Osterman, a gold medalist in 2004 in Athens who helped her team into the semifinals here by going 3-0 with a no-hitter, striking out 24 in 14 innings. "It's frustrating because we, as a team, have worked so hard to see softball grow to be a recognized sport and to be on TV a lot.
"Why were we trying to make these strides if it's not going to be recognized by everybody?"
The timing could not be worse for Osterman. With Lisa Fernandez, leader of the past three Olympic gold-medal teams, failing to make the team for Beijing and pitcher Jennie Finch, the face of this summer's squad, turning 31 by London, Osterman appeared poised to follow them into a leadership role - and later, into the broadcast booth.
She certainly has the qualifications. A two-time Pan American Games winner and a two-time World Cup champion, Osterman is 32-1 with six runs allowed in international competition since 2003, averaging two strikeouts per inning.
Not bad for someone whose first Olympic dreams growing up in Texas were of soccer and basketball. Yet it is ironic, national team coach Mike Candrea said, that the U.S. success - behind Osterman and players such as Finch (2-0 with 11 scoreless innings) and outfielder Jessica Mendoza (hitting .421 here with four home runs) - has spurred softball's popularity but also has helped push softball off the Games' schedule because of U.S. dominance.
"If you look at the growth of our sport, especially in the United States, there's a reason for it. And a lot of it has been the influx of the Cat Ostermans and the Jennie Finches and the Mendozas that have really been tremendous role models," he said. "Internationally, probably they may not have the opportunity to be [quite as] known as a Lisa Fernandez. But softball people know that these are pretty special athletes that really have done a great job in the window that they've had to play the game."
Now that that window is closing, Osterman plans to return for a second season as an assistant coach at DePaul University. In the summer, she'll continue pitching for the national team and in the fledgling professional fast-pitch league.
"If there's any way I can help, I want to," she said. "Obviously, the sport has given a lot to all of us. And we're all pretty much in the same boat that we'd love to give back what we can because we've gained so much from [softball]."