Why Olympic softball star Danielle Lawrie sacrificed everything to return to the game
By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
Danielle Lawrie woke up before sunrise on a late March morning and tiptoed out of the house with her husband, Drew Locke.
He was driving her to the airport, where she would catch a flight to Cape Coral, Florida, to join the other softball players vying to represent Canada in the Tokyo Olympics.
The family’s nanny, Isabel, arrived earlier than usual so that someone would be home when the couple’s two young daughters, Madison and Audrey, woke up. Lawrie had said goodbye to the girls the night before. As she tucked them in, she told them it was because she didn’t want to wake them at the crack of dawn.
That wasn't the whole truth. Lawrie knew that if she said goodbye right before she left, she’d fall apart.
She made it out of the house dry-eyed.
What she wasn’t prepared for was driving over the crest of a hill and seeing all of her friends in Mill Creek, Washington, gathered on the side of the road to send her off to training. Lawrie’s best friend in town had even dressed her own daughters in Canadian Wild jerseys, representing the National Pro Fastpitch team for which Lawrie plays.
As the gathering came into view, she broke down. She looked at Locke and asked if he had known about the surprise. He had.
"It gave me every type of feel," Lawrie told me after she arrived in Florida, on one of the many calls we’ve shared over the past five months. "It made me so grateful to look at all those people and know that they’re literally supporting me. They’re helping our family to the absolute fullest so I can continue to pursue this dream of mine."
Work trips aren’t usually so emotional for parents, but Lawrie isn’t just any parent, and this wasn’t just any work trip. She was looking down the barrel of almost five months away from Locke and her children, and she knew that if all went well, after May 18, she wouldn’t see them until early August.
Lawrie's story is emblematic of so many Olympic athletes competing in the Summer Games starting this week in Japan. On TV, we see elite athletes at the pinnacle of their powers. But behind the scenes, they are human beings who sacrificed so much to be ready for their moment, only to have it postponed a year while the world has grappled with COVID-19.
For Lawrie, the wait has been even longer. This is the first time since 2008 that both she and the sport of softball are back in the Olympics.
With softball back in the Olympics after a 13-year absence, Danielle Lawrie will get the chance to erase her bitter memories from 2008. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
That first Olympic experience 13 years ago wasn’t pretty for Lawrie — she was a headstrong, 21-year-old pitching phenom, and she clashed with coaches and teammates. The night after Canada lost an elimination game to cement a fourth-place finish, her teammates locked her out of her hotel room.
But Lawrie became a legend a year later, when she led the University of Washington to its first NCAA softball championship.
She went on to play professionally in Japan and the States, retiring in 2014 when Maddie was 2 years old. But when her second daughter, Audrey, was just 6 months old, Lawrie decided to come out of retirement and train for the 2020 Games. She wanted a medal, yes, but she also wanted a chance to play like the kind of leader and teammate she’d be proud to have beside her on the field.
The road to Tokyo has been harder than Lawrie ever expected. Getting back into playing shape after having two children and spending many years away from the sport takes intense physical dedication as it is, but COVID turned the extra year into a mental challenge like Lawrie had never experienced before.
"The hardest thing I have ever had to do," she told me in March before she left for Florida. "The marriage stress has been a lot, and then on top of that, leaving my little girls. And they cannot come to Tokyo."
The price of chasing glory has been high: Lawrie uprooted herself and her family’s entire life. But the ultimate goal goes far beyond personal redemption. She’s looking to show her daughters that they have the same options as boys and that they can do, and be, whatever they want. She wants them to watch her, a generational talent, at the height of her powers.
Because when she tells them they can chase any dream, she wants to be their best example.
THE REGRET OF 2008
Lawrie grew up in Langley, British Columbia. Her father, Russ, was an intense sports dad. On family camping trips, he’d take Danielle and her brother, Brett, to nearby baseball fields before breakfast to train for two hours. Russ knew his kids had rare athletic abilities from the time they could walk, so he saw it as his job to make sure that they wanted the ball. That they craved making the big play in the big moment. That they prepared for it.
Their mother, Cheryl, was the more overtly affectionate parent who would tell the hard-driving Russ when the kids needed a break. She worked nights at a local Safeway to help make ends meet and came home in the morning in time to give Danielle a kiss and send her off to school. Danielle loved the smell of her mom’s perfume — Hot Couture by Givenchy — so much in those moments that she now wears it every day.
The combination of parenting styles clearly worked: Lawrie is, well, who she is, and Brett had a six-year career as an infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. But the major leagues were never going to be an option for Danielle.
"We have the all-star program [for kids], and, you know, she never got invited to it," Russ said. "So I asked the coach, ‘Well, why not?' He said he didn't think she was good enough, even though I would say she was the best player on the team."
Russ knew the coach was being sexist, but he also got the sense that pushing back was unlikely to change anything. After all, if it’s still rare for women to play baseball today, back in the 1990s, it was almost unheard of. So at the age of 12, Lawrie switched to softball.
She quickly proved to be the best at that, too, and was a top recruit in high school. She also had offers to play basketball for several Canadian universities but chose to play softball for Washington because she loved the coach, Heather Tarr.
As a junior, Lawrie redshirted from the Huskies to play for Team Canada in the 2008 Beijing Games. Her brother went to Beijing for baseball at the same time, but the softball coaches were very strict about where their players could go, so Danielle wasn’t able to watch Brett play.
The night before Canada faced Australia, coach Lori Sippel called Lawrie into her hotel room. Sippel told Lawrie that she would be the starting pitcher, entrusting her with a huge responsibility: Depending on the outcome, Canada could either win a medal or finish fourth.
Until then, Lawrie had played only a few games — the team’s veteran ace, Lauren Bay, was the go-to. (Bay, who took her husband’s last name of Regula and now has three children, is also on the Canadian team this year. In fact, four players from that '08 squad are playing for Canada in Tokyo.)
Lawrie was thrilled. Her entire life had led to that moment. She had inherited Russ’ intensity and craved pressure. She talked to her dad every day in Beijing; he and Cheryl had come to watch their kids.
But Lawrie’s Canadian team didn’t jell the way her college team had, and her aggressive nature often put her at odds with some veterans. She wanted to quit numerous times, but Russ told her to keep at it, that it would be worth it in the end.
As Lawrie lay in bed that night, barely able to sleep, she realized this opportunity was what he had meant.
But the next morning, as Lawrie got into the hotel elevator with Sippel, the coach dropped the bomb that Bay would start after all. Lawrie’s heart sank along with the lift.
"If I was 34, I could totally handle that emotion," she said. "But at 21 – freshly 21 — I didn't know how to handle it. And it crushed me. More than I ever thought."
Lawrie found one of her best friends, Jenn Salling — who is on the team this year, too — and tried not to cry. Salling knew Lawrie about as well as anyone; they grew up playing against and with each other in British Columbia, and both played at Washington.
Salling told Lawrie, "We still need you, right? So you have to find a way to be the best teammate that you can be."
But Lawrie couldn’t snap out of her funk. Canada lost to Australia. Lawrie left the field with her parents to go watch one of her brother’s games and didn’t tell her teammates. She cried into her beer in the stands, even though part of her was relieved to be going home.
When she got back to the hotel, some of her teammates — unhappy with what they saw as her selfish behavior and holding grudges from the entire experience — had locked her out of her room. They wouldn’t answer her calls. Lawrie had to find a college friend who was a rower and sleep in the Canadian crew team’s hotel that night.
"My biggest regret from the '08 Olympics was not being the best teammate I could be in that moment," she said. "I was mad that it wasn't me [starting the game]. But at the end of the day, we had 15 athletes trying to win us a medal. And if it wasn't me, then I needed to accept that and cheer the team on and be the best version of myself for the team in that moment. And I didn't. And I wasn't.
"But the coolest part is that I can hopefully redo this 13 years later. And I may not be the one for the job — or maybe I am — but I know how to handle it better. And that was probably my biggest regret, something that not a lot of people know."
Lawrie put the Huskies on her back and carried the program to its first NCAA softball championship in 2009. (Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
A LEGEND IN THE CIRCLE
Lawrie hated how it all felt. But she used '08 as a learning experience, as the state of Washington would find out when she came back for the 2009 season.
She was determined to fulfill a promise she had made at an event honoring the Seattle sports world before she left for Beijing. She had taken the stage in front of 500 people gathered in a ballroom, including Russ, Cheryl and players from the Mariners and Seahawks.
"She said, ‘I will bring you a national championship,'" Russ said. "I looked at her mother like, ‘Oh, my God, she didn't say that.’ That’s a big promise. I don't know how you walk that back."
Lawrie didn’t have to. In 2009, she won Washington its first and only NCAA national title in softball. It was a team win, of course, but it wouldn’t have happened without Lawrie.
In the NCAA regionals, she threw 395 pitches in a doubleheader, including 251 in the second game, a 15-inning victory over UMass that ended at 1:18 a.m. She struck out 24 batters.
In the national final at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, she whiffed eight and drove in the game-winning run to beat the No. 1-seeded Florida Gators for the title.
"I look at that 2009 championship year, and it was one of the most selfless teams I have ever been a part of, every one of us," Lawrie said. "You are only as strong as your weakest player. We knew that, and I knew that."
Lawrie was named tournament MVP. Then, as a senior in 2010, she pitched four no-hitters, three of which were perfect games. She led the team in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage with career highs. She also put up career bests in batting average, hits and walks. Lawrie still holds many records at Washington and in the Pac-12.
So it wasn’t hyperbole when one headline from 2009 asked the question: "Is Danielle Lawrie Babe Ruth Reincarnated?"
Russ once watched an older man stop Danielle at a football tailgate to tell her that his wife, dying of cancer, watched the team from her hospital bed. The woman didn’t let go until she saw the Huskies beat Florida.
"At the end, when we got to put our hands up in the air, it was probably — besides having my kids and meeting my husband — one of the happiest days of my life," Lawrie said. "Because it truly made me realize that I had been through so much, but it was for something bigger than I ever thought it was."
Lawrie, holding the NCAA championship trophy, says the 2009 Washington Huskies softball team was incredibly connected. (Photo by J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
After college, Lawrie played professionally in Japan. She and her teammate Megan Willis would go to a local bar and sit there, soaking up the meaning of it all — being paid well to play pro sports, a rarity for women. Lawrie would look at Megan and say, "What an amazing thing we’re doing right now."
Lawrie met Locke in 2010, after her first season in Japan, when he was playing on a Triple-A team in Texas. He had been a star slugger at Boston College and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 19th round in 2005 but never made it to the majors.
When Lawrie’s group of friends was introduced to his, Lawrie told the other women, "Shotty on the guy in the orange. No one talk to that guy."
No one else did. Lawrie and Locke have been together ever since.
"The first day I met Danielle, she was fierce," said Locke, now an account executive for a company called Pure Storage in Seattle. "She knew what she wanted, and no one was getting in her way. She lives life that way. She hasn't changed one bit."
In 2013, while Lawrie was playing in Japan, she learned that she was pregnant. It was a complicated pregnancy — she had to visit doctors in Japan without Locke or her family. The doctors put her on bed rest due to blood clots. Eventually, she came back to the States and moved to Boston with Locke. She called the U.S. pro league and said she wouldn’t be able to play that summer.
"I was 25 years old," Lawrie said. "Which is definitely not too young to have a baby, but literally within months, my whole entire world changed — from being this top-tier, physically fit athlete to carrying a child, getting married, living in Boston, being away from everything I knew. And I went through this really weird — I'm not going to say depression — but when you live on such a high and when your life changes and there's nothing you can do about it, it’s hard, right?"
Lawrie promised herself she’d get back into the game as soon as she could, so six months after Maddie was born, she started to train for a season with the independent softball team USSSA PRIDE, based in Florida. The team paid for Cheryl to travel with Danielle to help care for the baby. But eventually, it became too difficult to balance everything.
So, in 2014, the year Washington retired her jersey, Lawrie retired from the game.
At least, that was the plan.
Washington retired Lawrie's No. 15 in 2014, fitting tribute for the two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. (Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
THINGS DONE CHANGED
In the summer of 2017, Lawrie and Locke went on their annual family vacation to Cape Cod with his family. Lawrie was watching the World Cup of Softball while 6-month-old Audrey was down for her nap. Maddie was playing outside.
On the TV, Lawrie heard former player Michele Smith — a good friend and colleague at ESPN, where Lawrie is a college softball analyst — say she played her best when she was in her mid-30s.
Lawrie was 30 at the time.
"All of a sudden, this light bulb went off," she said. "And I was just like, 'Damn, the Olympics are coming. I'm 30 years old. Yes, I have kids, and I have back issues. It's not going to be easy.’ But in that moment, I made that decision that it was what I was going to do."
At first, Locke was not thrilled.
"I thought she was crazy," he said.
Not only would returning to the game take an absurd amount of work, but it would also take her away from her family for months at a time. The two had built a life together. They had a routine and two kids under the age of 4, and Locke’s job required a lot of travel.
But Lawrie sat him down to explain why she so badly wanted to return to the game.
"Her thing was that these guys in all professional sports, their kids get to watch them be the best at what they're really good at," Locke said. "And the women never get to experience that.
"Danielle's really, really, really good at softball, one of the best to ever play, and her daughters were never going to be able to get to see her play. So that's what fueled and motivated her. And at the end of the day, I can't really argue."
Lawrie’s other reason was more personal: Rewriting her 2008 story and closing that chapter with Team Canada mattered.
"The reason, the why, was more important than how hard it was going to be," Locke told me in June while driving Maddie and Audrey home from camp. "I wish you could see what these girls are doing to each other right now," he added, reaching back to stop them from wrestling in the backseat.
If Locke was skeptical at first, he has since thrown himself into supporting Lawrie with everything he has.
"He’s a girl dad through and through," Lawrie said. "He shows them so much love. And I just think that that's such an important piece to women being successful, especially with their dads. And the same thing goes with my dad. I think that's why I'm still playing. I always had that love and that belief, but that push from him that made me realize I can always be better."
At the same time, Lawrie’s teammate Salling makes the point that calling men heroes for staying home while their wives pursue careers is hypocritical, considering that women have been doing that for men for millennia.
"Danielle and Lauren [Regula] have husbands at home, and they're off being the badasses that they are," Salling said. "Why is it so different for a woman to leave and pursue [her] passion?"
Still, Salling knows that it’s unfortunately rare for guys to step up the way Locke has, which is why she posted about him on Instagram for Father's Day ("Thank God for Andrew," she told me.) In order for women’s opportunities to equal men’s, men have to play a huge role in facilitating change.
But no matter how much Locke does and no matter how difficult the family thought Lawrie’s quest would be, 2020 made it harder than they could have ever imagined.
Lawrie was at the top of her game when the national team gathered in March 2020 to begin training in earnest for the Olympics. At that time, her career had taken her away from her family on and off for three years.
Getting back into playing shape wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it had already paid off: Lawrie helped Canada win a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships.
And then, like it did for almost everyone across the world, COVID ripped the rug out from under her.
The team was on a break when the sports world shut down. The players were supposed to have seven days off before regrouping in Fresno, California, but they wouldn’t see each other for 10 months.
The Olympics were postponed, and the possibility of outright cancellation hung over every athlete’s head.
"In my mind, I just didn't know how I could continue to put forth that effort without getting mentally drained and not wanting to do it anymore," Lawrie said. "So I went through dark days of wine at 5 o'clock with my best friend, who lives four doors down."
Lawrie turned to Russ and Cheryl for support. They haven't been able to visit each other because Canada closed the country to Americans, but they've been able to gather for a few hours at a time at a park near the border. The last time Lawrie saw her parents was in early May, when she drove with the kids to the border. Russ gave Lawrie a hug and said, "Go win a medal for us."
Locke also helped his wife get through the tough moments during COVID. But like many parents during the pandemic, they had a hard time juggling work, childcare and the constant threat of disease in isolation. Ultimately, it was Lawrie’s kids who made her realize she had to keep going.
"If I were to give up at that point, it would just show my daughters, what was the point of the last three years?" she said. "It may not impact them right now, but there will be times throughout their lives where there's going to be things that I can pull from this experience.
"I feel lucky that I had the balls to tell my husband that this is what I wanted to do. I'm getting paid, like, $30 a day. I'm not getting paid what Major League Baseball players are getting. I'm playing for something completely different — obviously the chance to make history — but to show my girls that if you put in the work, dreams are possible."
Choosing to stay home and raise children is just as valid as any career and just as brave a choice for women to make. But it’s crucial that girls grow up knowing they’re entitled to the same choices boys have. For that to be true, they need examples of every option.
"Being a mom, I can put myself first, and my kids are right there behind me," Lawrie said. "And I think sometimes as moms, we can lose sight of that. Because we are supposed to just give and give to our kids. But I realize that I'm not the best mom I can be if I don't fill my bucket, right? So here I am."
ONE MORE CHANCE
To keep herself sane and focused in 2020, Lawrie took five months off from pitching ("I mean, I know how to pitch"). She instead focused on conditioning and would even take Maddie on short runs around the neighborhood.
All the camps that Team Canada scheduled for the fall of 2020 were canceled as COVID ripped through the world. Finally, the team was able to train for a week in Toronto in January and then come back together for real in Florida in March.
When Lawrie left home, she knew it would be 122 days before she lived with her husband and kids again. Since then, she has seen them three times. When she gets home in August, she will have been away from them for almost three months.
Even the team's breaks were stressful. What if everything fell apart again and a weekend home turned into another 10 months away from the team? Unlike the first time around, Lawrie wasn’t taking any moment for granted. Making the roster in May was a huge payoff.
"Getting named to the roster in 2007 felt nothing like it did this time," Lawrie said. "I was 20 then, and honestly, it almost felt like an entitlement. Like, ‘I should be here. Why wouldn’t I get picked for the team?’
"This time, I’ve had to push myself in different ways and to such extreme levels that it was such a different whirlwind of emotion to still be doing this."
Since making the cut, Lawrie has been living in dorm rooms in Illinois and going for runs in the thick Florida summer heat. At first, it wasn’t so bad. She was sleeping for nine hours a night, something most parents can only dream of.
"I’ve had to remind myself that it’s OK to be present where I’m at and fully miss my family," Lawrie told me in March, when she’d been away from home for just a week. "My time in this game is ending, so if I want to give the team everything I possibly have, I have to be invested in the moment. It’s made it way more fun than I ever thought possible."
Gradually, however, the grind began to take its toll. In June, Lawrie called a meeting to tell her teammates how much she was struggling. She felt homesick, and her body was close to its breaking point. But Lawrie wasn’t the only one fighting mental fatigue and talking about it brought the team closer. The players eased up on the lifting routine to give themselves a breather before they left for Tokyo.
Because once they got to Japan, with the finish line in sight, there would be no letting up.
"YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND"
Lawrie called home before she boarded the plane to Tokyo in early July. It has been difficult to get her daughters on the phone; they’re busy being summer kids, bouncing between playdates and baseball camps. Maddie doesn’t love the sport the way her parents do, but she loves having something in common with them.
This time, when Lawrie called from the airport, Maddie was eager to talk.
Lawrie — who is as open with her kids as she is with everyone else — told Maddie that she’d been anxious and nervous lately. Maddie asked why. Lawrie said she was trying to prepare for what happens if she doesn’t have a medal around her neck when she returns.
"And Maddie goes, ‘Well, I mean, if you don't win the gold, you can always win another medal,’" Lawrie told me. "And it almost brought me to tears, the innocence of what she was saying. It also makes this journey more rewarding, knowing that whether s--- hits the fan or if it's absolutely the coolest ending to my story ever, I get to hop on a plane and go home."
Lawrie told me this after her 40-hour trip to Tokyo. It was 5:45 a.m. in Japan, and after her first real night of sleep in three days, she awoke to the news there would be no fans in Olympic venues.
Locke, Lawrie’s parents and the kids had hotels and flights booked for 2020, which they obviously had to cancel. Now, to watch Lawrie, the family will have to stream the Canadian broadcasts.
At this point, Lawrie is just relieved the Games are happening at all. And it’s not like she’s there alone — she’s surrounded by women she has played with for more than two decades. Lawrie and her teammates have been through so much together that this team feels like her college squad. It’s the collective experience she didn’t have at her first Olympics.
And this time, they’re playing for every woman who hasn’t had the opportunity to wear CANADA across her chest on an Olympic softball diamond over the past 13 years.
Lawrie has a more selfless relationship with the other pitchers this time around. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to support the team, whether that means starting or closing. But one thing hasn’t changed: how direct and intense she is.
"She doesn't care about being liked," Salling said. "What she cares about is being respected, and what she cares about is the team winning. People might not always love how DL says things — because it can come off very aggressive and harsh and brash. But what makes it so good is that there's never any room for gray areas. You don't walk away going, ‘Oh, what did she mean?’"
What you see is what you get with Lawrie, both on social media — where she documents her entire experience, including videos of her crying into her phone in her darker moments — and in real life. I was initially surprised by how candid she is about, well, everything.
She gave me none of the "press conference word salad" that athletes often toss out to evade questions. She didn’t shy away from telling me any details. I wondered why.
But after conversations with Lawrie, her coaches, her teammates and her family, it became clear that her honesty is a form of motivation. Putting everything out there leaves her nowhere to hide. Her intensity keeps her accountable.
"I am by no means comparing myself to Michael Jordan," Lawrie told me in March. "But the line that he said in ‘The Last Dance’ documentary that woke me up was, 'I don't ask people to do things that I already haven't done.’ And If I want something bad enough, and I am putting in that work, day in and day out, and a teammate isn’t doing it, something needs to be said. I can't go to an Olympics and lose and know that I haven't pushed everyone to that next level."
Lawrie isn’t sure what will come after she walks off the field for the last time. She loves broadcasting, and she'd like to find a way to help college-aged softball players cope with the mental aspects of the game.
"Michelle Smith said she was at her best at 34, 35," Lawrie said. "How fitting that I'm 34 at my last Olympic Games. I really am at my best mentally, better than I ever have been."
Canada started the Olympics on a high note Wednesday, blanking Mexico 4-0 as Lawrie earned the save and Salling homered. On Saturday, following a game against the U.S., Team Canada will face Australia, the team that almost ended Lawrie's Olympic career in 2008. She will put on her headphones and listen to James Taylor on the bus ride to the stadium. She has found comfort in Taylor’s music ever since she was a 15-year-old playing with the 19-and-under Canadian team.
Russ handed Lawrie a James Taylor CD as she sobbed at the airport before she left. He told her, "If you ever are struggling, play the song ‘You’ve Got A Friend,’ and just remember your family and how hard you've worked to get to this moment."
Russ might very well say the same thing Saturday. But this time, Lawrie has the perspective to truly understand what he means.
"I have these two amazing, loving kids and this husband and this life that I created for myself that allowed me to realize that softball isn't life," Lawrie said. "And this sounds bad, but I am no longer determined by a win or a loss, right? It’s how I choose to go about my business every day. It's how I choose to spread kindness. It's how I choose to grow this game."
A medal would be nice, but by simply stepping foot on that Olympic diamond in 2021 — with her daughters and the whole world watching — Lawrie has already won.
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of "The People's Sports Podcast" for FOX Sports. She's honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.