“It wasn’t about winning the gold,” says Michelle Venturella, head softball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. “It was the whole journey leading up to it.”
Venturella, 45, was a sophomore catcher at Indiana University when she heard about tryouts for what would be the first U.S. Olympic softball team. For the next two years, she trained with the best athletes in the nation, making the 1996 team as an alternate.
Four years later, the South Holland, Illinois, native made the team as a starter and was on the field in Sydney in 2000 when the team won its second gold medal — a moment she’ll never forget.
“After we won, we went to the dugout and put our Olympic gear on, so we could make a victory lap,” she recalls. “And out of 10,000 people, I heard my mom’s voice. And when I made eye contact with her, remembering everything she had sacrificed for this, it was like everything came together in that moment.”
After coaching as an assistant at the University of Iowa and as head coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Venturella came to Washington University in 2017. She strives to create a supportive and challenging environment for the athletes. “It was my college coach who gave me a push to try out for the Olympic team,” she says. “I had the right people at every step cheering me on.”
Whatever her students want to pursue, Venturella wants to be there to help give them that same push that led to her own success. “There wasn’t a moment I thought I could do it until I was there,” she says. “I learned that if you go out every day and do the best job you can with the opportunities you have been given, you might end up surprising yourself. Don’t let your own limitations hold you back. Be present and trust in the process.”
She jokes that she wears the medal around once a week, “just to be make sure my players know that I used to be good, because now I’m just old.” But the reality is, Venturella is humbled by the experience and would much prefer to keep the focus on her athletes.
“My ultimate goal for them is that they’re always part of a team,” Venturella says. “Whether it’s in the workforce, or someday if they decide to get married and have kids, that’s your team.”
And about those rings that her athletes are going to be walking past every day: “It’s a reminder that anything is possible,” she says. “When I think about my story and tons of other Olympic athletes’ stories, I realize that we’re regular people who decided to pursue something and not let anything along the way change that path.
“The Olympics have the power to draw countries together that otherwise would never be on the same field,” Venturella says. “It’s a reminder of the power of sport, and I am so thrilled that we have a ‘Spectacular’ on the campus of Washington University.”
Read more stories celebrating Washington University’s Olympic legacy here.