23 years ago, USA won Olympic gold. Now, international softball returns to Columbus

Laura Berg is coming back to Columbus, the place where she first won an Olympic gold medal.

The USA Softball Hall of Fame honoree won’t be on the field this time. She’ll be an assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team.

The city is hosting the USA Softball International Cup July 1-7 at the South Commons Softball Complex. The event comes 23 years after Team USA won gold at Columbus’ Golden Park in the 1996 Olympic Games — the first time softball was an official medal sport.

The games left fond memories of winning strikeouts and friendly crowds. Some say it marked a tipping point in Columbus’ evolution.

Now, on the heels of multimillion-dollar repairs and renovations to its softball complex, city officials hope this international tournament will bring more events there.

‘The whole region is going to benefit’

Columbus wanted in on Olympic fun six years before the first pitch was thrown.

West Georgia mayors, including then-Columbus Mayor James Jernigan, were planning to meet so they could develop a strategy to market their cities as potential practice sites for Olympic athletes and a stopping point for tourists. It was Sept. 19, 1990, the day after Atlanta was officially selected as the 1996 host.

“This whole region is going to benefit,” Jernigan told the Ledger-Enquirer in 1990. “We will do everything we can do to maximize the impact for this region.”

But things changed, and some in the city had their sights on something bigger.

In August 1993, Columbus won a 10-way competition to host the softball games. A flurry of construction and the formation of committees to ready the city kicked off.

“The Olympics coming here when they did put a lot of focus on Columbus,” said Carmen Cavezza, a former commanding general at Fort Benning who led the nonprofit Columbus ‘96 Support Committee which was formed to promote and assist in running the city’s Olympic softball venue. “It was a kickoff to the ‘New Columbus,’ if you will.”

USA Softball left fielder Kim Maher receives her gold medal as Dot Richardson, left, and Lisa Fernandez raise their arms in celebration at Golden Park in Columbus in this August 1996 Ledger-Enquirer file photo. Teammates from left, Julie Smith, Dionna Harris, Richardson, Maher, Fernandez, Shelley Stokes and Laura Berg. The U.S. beat China 3-1 for the first softball gold medal in Olympic history. Robin Trimarchi rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

The South Commons softball fields, renovations to Golden Park and the construction of the Columbus Civic Center were funded through a special 1% sales tax that was approved months before the city knew it could bid for the games.

The private sector stepped up in the years before the games, too. They were tasked with raising millions of dollars.

“It was a perfect example of how this community has worked together for almost 25 years on a public-private partnership that has brought not only the Olympics — but I could go on and on,” said Richard Bishop, a long-time government official who was assistant director of the city’s parks and recreation department when the Olympics came.

As the years turned to months and the months turned to days, things fell into place. The Superball Classic of 1995, an international softball tournament featuring countries that would be here for the Olympics the following year, was the city’s first test run.

Columbus was ready.

Final touches were added. The fields were pristine. The crowds were prepared.

All that was left was to throw the first Olympic pitch.

‘It was really a dream come true’

Berg, a student at Fresno State University when she was an outfielder for Team USA in 1996, arrived in Columbus for the games.

She remembers having fun with her teammates, lunches at local restaurants and the reactions she received from everyone in town.

“It really was a dream come true,” she said.

Laura Berg.jpg
Team USA

The games were held in late July. The stands were packed, and spectators were loud. Berg recalled the crowds chanting ‘USA!’ every time they entered or exited the field.

“It was so special being in our home country and everybody rooting for us every single time,” she said. “In Columbus, they took us in as part of their family. They wanted to see us be successful. ... I remember riding in the car with my parents and my twin sister, and somebody dedicated (the song) ‘Proud to be an American’ (to the team on the radio) before the gold medal game.”

The Americans rolled through the competition, winning six of their seven games. The tournament’s final pitch was a riseball thrown to a left-handed Chinese batter, Berg recalled. It was a strikeout.

America won gold.

“I remember running to my team as we were dog-piling on each other and the flashes going off.” she said. “Going back there is so special. ... I’m sure more memories are going to come flooding back when I get there.”

‘I think it’s pretty special’

The U.S. Women’s National Team, along with the Under-19 Women’s National team, will again be in Columbus for a softball tournament.

Team USA will play against Japan, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Chinese Taipei, China, Philippines and Peru ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It’s the first time softball will be back at the games since 2008.

“It’s going to be kind of like a mini-Olympics,” Berg said of the Columbus warmup.

The games will be played at the renovated South Commons complex.

Team USA conducted a site visit in April 2018 and saw many changes needed to be made if the tournament were to be hosted there. The Columbus Sports Council began its capital campaign to improve the facility a few months later, said Merri Sherman, the council’s executive director.

South Commons Aerial2.jpg
The photograph show the South Commons Softball Complex on June 18, 2018. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

In October, the Columbus Council voted to borrow $7 million in bonds issued by the Columbus Building Authority. Of that, $3 million was allocated to the complex. The sports council has raised $2.2 million to date for the project, with more expected. The $4.8 million spent so far was used for renovations and upgrades to the stadium, built after the Olympics, and two adjacent fields.

The tournament is expected to have an estimated economic impact of $1 million, and the sports council will use this tournament as a springboard to attract other new events, Sherman said.

“We still have phase 2 to address, and we still have other facilities in the city that need to be addressed in order to continue to host different events,” she said. “We will definitely work very hard to recruit more events.”

But the focus right now is on the upcoming softball tournament and the return of the women’s national team.

“To have them come back to Columbus,” she said, “I think it means a lot to the people who were here in 1996 and saw them win their gold in our city. It’s pretty special.”

If you go: Online ticket sales end on June 27. Tickets can be purchased at the gate. VIP seating for the entire day is $25, and general admission for the entire day is $15. Team USA’s first game is against the Philippines at 4:30 p.m. July 1 at the complex’s stadium. Select games featuring Team USA will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. A full schedule of the USA Softball International Cup games can be found online here.

Ledger-Enquirer archives were used in this report.