Errorless on the field, Olympian's higher aim is faithfulness
ATHENS (BP)--Headlines celebrated the overpowering pitching of the U.S. softball team en route to a gold medal via a 5-1 victory over Australia Aug. 23.
But Leah O'Brien-Amico -- a member of the U.S. gold medal teams in 1996 and 2000 -- was there at first base, tallying a team-high 49 put-outs -- all without an error -- playing in eight U.S. victories at the Summer Olympics in Athens.
O'Brien-Amico was on board with a single when teammate Crystl Bustos -- who led all Olympians in slugging percentage and round-trippers -- homered in the first inning to post all the scoring that would be needed to topple the Aussies behind the pitching of Lisa Fernandez -- the Olympics' top pitcher with a 0.29 earned run average.
Although batting .200 in Athens, O'Brien-Amico, 29, nevertheless emerged among the Olympics leaders in runs batted in -- tied with five others for fourth -- and runs scored -- tied with two U.S. teammates for fifth.
O'Brien-Amico, upon arriving in Athens, tuned up for the competition not just by practice on the field but, like the team's highly touted rookie pitcher Jennie Finch, also by practicing her faith.
"Practice has been keeping us busy -- we have two hours to practice on the fields but we try to squeeze 3-4 hours of work into that amount of time," O'Brien-Amico wrote in her journal at the USA Softball website. But also: "We've been checking out the Religious Center to see if they hold Bible studies (in Sydney it was great to meet with other Christians from around the world).
"Yesterday [Aug. 8] we went and there were finally people there holding a Bible study. There were two women archers from the U.S., two boxers from Nigeria, and somebody from South Africa, Nigeria, Australia and Canada," she recounted. "The Olympic Games truly is an event that brings the world together!"
Not surprisingly, O'Brien-Amico is among the team leaders in spiritual leadership.
At the Sydney Olympics, she recounted to Sports Spectrum, "I was the prayer warrior on our team. When I made the team, I knew God had a plan, and I was kind of the spiritual leader. Before the games, I would ask my teammates to pray with me. We had a prayer huddle before every game during our lead-up to the Olympics, and we'd have anywhere from 5 to 10 players. But at the Olympics, we got everybody together and everybody prayed. We just gave everything to the Lord. I would like to think that was a leadership role. After the Games, we gave all the glory to God and gave thanks to Him."
On the USA Softball website, O'Brien-Amico's question-and-answer section includes:
-- Dream job -- "Motivational speaker, speak on [the] Christian circuit."
-- Who do you most admire -- "My mom, Denise O'Brien."
-- Three people you would love to have dinner with -- "Jesus, President Bush, Billy Graham."
-- Favorite book -- The Bible.
-- Pre-game ritual -- "Pray before the game."
Spiritually oriented answers are alongside such admissions as:
-- Late-night snack -- Mint chocolate chip ice cream.
-- Favorite place to shop -- Old Navy.
O'Brien-Amico also is a mom: She and her husband, Tommy, whom she met at a softball game in 1997, have a 2-year-old son, Jake.
Finding a balance in her life, she notes on the USA Softball website, is a matter of: "Keeping God first, family second and softball/career third."
On the U.S. Olympic team's website, meanwhile, she says she encourages youth to: "Be sold out for Christ. When we have a real relationship with Him, our hearts are changed from the inside out."
O'Brien-Amico, as a collegian, helped lead the Arizona Wildcats to three College World Series titles, in 1994, 1995 and 1997 and was named the NCAA woman of the year in Arizona in '97. She was red-shirted for the '96 season to compete in the Atlanta Olympics.
Reflecting back on her life, O'Brien-Amico told Focus on the Family's Brio magazine for teen girls, "When I was little, I went to church and asked Jesus into my heart. But as I got older and started traveling for softball, I didn't have a home church and didn't have a foundation in what the Word said....”
In college, she continued, "... drinking and being in that scene, you say everyone else is doing it and you compare yourself to them. It wasn't that big of a deal -- or so I thought. You'd say, 'It's not like I drink all the time.' Or you'd look at someone else and say, 'Oh, she has a problem.' At the same time, I started to learn what the Bible said, and I realized I had to compare myself to Jesus, not everyone else."
She became involved with the Christian ministry Athletes in Action during her junior year of college at the invitation of a freshman, Julie Reitan, whose dad was a minister. "It was the first time I realized, hey, I'm a Christian, but I don't know the first thing about God's Word or who Jesus really was," O'Brien-Amico told Brio.
Reitan died from complications of diabetes two years later. "It shows to me," O'Brien-Amico said, "that the Lord put her into my life to bring me back to Him, and no matter how short my life is, I really want to make a difference like she did."
Returning to college after the '96 Olympics, "I grew more spiritually than I ever had, and my softball skills grew, too. I learned how to play my sport for Jesus. I finally said to God, 'I'm going to give everything to You; every aspect of my life I want it to be what You want it to be,'" O'Brien-Amico said. "All of a sudden people would come up to me and ask [about who God is and what the Bible says about various issues]. I realized I had to have answers. After we won the collegiate world series [in 1997], I prayed constantly, 'Lord, I want You to be glorified, no matter what happens.'"
Although she is teased sometimes for her faith, O'Brien-Amico nevertheless said, "I love it. They do it because they know I'm a Christian, and it gives me an opportunity to share more."
The United States is the only country to win gold in softball since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta.
The U.S. team dominated this year's Olympics from start to finish, scoring 51 runs while giving up only one in nine victories. Joining the silver medalist Aussies on the podium were the bronze medalist Japanese team.
Compiled by Art Toalston.