- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS — They leave the Olympics with gold medals for the third straight time, olive wreaths crowning their heads and a lasting legacy that’s just a shade off perfection.

The U.S. softball team not only was the real American Dream Team of these Olympics, it was the most dominant team of the Athens Games — and maybe any other.

“This is the best one I’ve ever coached,” Mike Candrea said. “It’s probably the best team I’ll ever see. I think it will go down as a team people will talk about for a long time.”

Displaying unmatched power on the mound, around the base paths and in the batter’s box, the United States won gold with a 5-1 victory over Australia yesterday, completing a nearly untarnished romp through an Olympic tournament that the Americans made their own.

The softball gold was the highlight of a day in which track-and-field newcomer Jeremy Wariner won the 400 meters, leading a U.S. sweep of the medals and becoming the first white American man to win a sprint medal since Mike Larabee won gold in the 400 meters in 1964.

But the real star of the day was Lisa Fernandez of the U.S. softball team. Fernandez’s four-hitter in the final was her fourth victory of the games, getting ample help from Crystl Bustos, who hit two homers.

The one run that Australia scored in the sixth inning was the only earned run she gave up the whole tournament, a minuscule flaw considering the Americans still outscored the field 51-1 in their nine games.

They also outhit it, outran it and outclassed it while virtually rewriting the Olympic softball record book.

When she got the final out, Fernandez flung her glove high into the air and was swarmed by her teammates, who piled on one after another like children playing tackle football in the yard.

“Our whole team came together today,” said Bustos, a two-time Olympian. “The bunting, the people getting on base, the hard-hit balls. Our defense was there. You can’t beat it. The pitching was phenomenal. It’s the best Olympic team I ever played on.”

From their opening-game rout of Italy to their gut-wrenching win over Japan and capped by their third win over the Aussies, the Americans showed — that at least in the softball world — they are alone on the diamond.

These women were a special unit, indeed, not just as a team, but as a group united by a common goal and even more so by last month’s death of Candrea’s wife, Sue.

“It’s been definitely an emotional thing for coach, and it’s definitely an emotional thing for the team,” Bustos said. “Sue was with us the whole way.”

Candrea drew courage from them during the toughest time of his life, and seconds after his players won their medals, they were there for him again.

They hugged their coach. They cried in his arms. They hoisted him in the air to chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A.”

“I thanked them all for the greatest moment of my life,” he said. “I will never forget the ride they put me on in these Olympic Games.”

Nor will anyone forget this team — one that extended its winning streak to 79 games.

Four years ago in Sydney, the United States barely captured gold. This time, it was just a blink from perfection.

Fernandez, as always, led the way.

The right-hander was thrilled when Candrea, who could have started Jennie Finch, gave her the ball against the Aussies — the closest thing that the U.S. team has to a rival.

She didn’t let him down. And she won it for his wife as much as she did for her teammates.

“The only way I could help him get through it was to at least bring home the gold,” Fernandez said, her voice cracking.

As she spoke, Candrea covered his face.

During the game, he rubbed his wedding band. It reminded him of the only thing missing from the “greatest day of my life.”

When he was chosen as coach two years ago, Candrea issued a challenge to his players:

“One, to be special. And, two, to leave a legacy,” he said. “I think this team has done that.”

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