Yukiko Ueno: Japanese softball superstar doesn’t rule out LA28 Olympic Games appearance

“I would be very happy to be back on the Olympic stage, but rather than striving for that, I would like to cherish each day and each year in front of me and face softball with even greater care,” Ueno said.

Japan’s softball icon Yukiko Ueno is more than just a visual symbol, but a reflection of commitment to a well-developed programme and long-time mission in softball.

Photo: Four generations of Japanese softball stardom at the WBSC U-15 Women’s Softball World Cup 2023. Pictured with Japan catcher Mao Hashimoto are Taeko Utsugi (left) who managed Reika Utsugi (right) and Yukiko Ueno (centre right) at the Athens 2004 Olympics; Reika then managed Ueno at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Woman

The 41-year-old softball pitcher will be immortalised for throwing the first-ever Olympic perfect game against China at Athens 2004.

But her golden moments at the Beijing 2008 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which were 13 years apart, will always be remembered in her country’s sporting history.

That first Olympic gold medal victory increased the sport’s popularity in Japan, which was also the inspiration behind the ‘Softboys’, a film based on a true story of the Ushizu High School in Saga Prefecture, where a group of students formed a softball team to compete at a national tournament.

Ueno’s heroic performances not only heralded success but also captivated and reinforced the sport’s presence. She has been one of the few female role models whose presence extended far beyond a decade, not just for Japan’s younger generations but also for those across the world.

The sports evolution revolved around her long-standing dominance in the circle and her pursuit of excellence never ceases.

“The level of the game is getting higher and higher, and the players of each country are getting better and better in terms of speed and others,” Ueno said.

“I think the more experienced players are, the more interesting their game becomes. Particularly in Japan, more people watch softball because of the results of the Japanese team at the Olympics. I hope that the sport will never go out of style in the future.

“I would like to do my best so that softball will always be a sport that attracts people.”

The Myth

The Fukuoka native’s game exudes precision, power and perfection. It brings excitement and energy and conveys passion that players and fans around the world are drawn to. To put it simply, Ueno is a paragon of excellence in the sport, leaving a mark of inspiration and motivation for anyone who witnessed her in action.

With a career that lasted five Olympic cycles, including three Olympic softball editions, the biggest question that comes to mind for the softball fans is whether she will see action at the LA28 Olympics after the announcement of softball’s return to the sports programme.

“Frankly speaking, I am very happy that we are able to connect the dreams of children who are aiming for the Olympics. I hope that the young people will continue to do their best in softball as they aim for the big stage at the Olympics,” she said.

“The decision to adopt softball in the Olympics again was made with the same desire to link the excitement and passion of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to LA28 Olympic Games. I hope to work together with softball players around the world to make softball a sport that people will support even more in the future.”

Five years from now, Japan will go for a three-peat title in Los Angeles. Ueno spoke about her enthusiasm for LA28 and did not rule out the prospect of playing in her fourth Olympic Games.

“I honestly don’t know if I will be able to continue playing softball for another five years, but as an athlete, I want to cherish every year and every day of my life. I would like to do my best to be a player who can be encouraged by the support of many people,” she mentioned.

“I don’t know if I will still be working hard five years from now. Right now I am working on my softball game as if each year will be a battle. I am now working on it with the thought that the build-up may last for five years, or maybe even longer.

“I would be very happy to be back on the Olympic stage, but rather than striving for that, I would like to cherish each day and each year in front of me and face softball with even greater care.

“I would be happy if I could stay for LA28, but if I set a goal, I could change my mind in the future. I would rather throw as long as I can, even a year, if possible without setting a goal. That is how I’m facing softball right now. And maybe as a result, I may be in the circle in five year’s time, that’s how I’m feeling right now.”

The Legend

Ueno’s game has truly aged to perfection, her mindset and determination likewise matured over time. The WBSC Order of the Golden Diamond recipient is an ageless wonder with a perpetual influence on the sports’ leaders, her peers, and also to the future generations.

Her almost two-decade-long work on the field is her legacy and her presence in softball events is a blessing to young aspirants. The Japanese softball icon graced the WBSC U-15 Women’s Softball World Cup 2023 in Tokyo last October and her presence meant a lot to future LA28 Olympians.

“This is a great opportunity for young players to interact with other softball players of the same age from around the world, more than just playing domestically,” Ueno stated.

“By seeing the world at a young age, it gives people a chance to further develop their image of the world or aim for the world as a top athlete. I would be very happy if we can increase the opportunities for people to experience the world at a young age.”

Credit: WBSC