SURREY, B.C. — Kaleigh Rafter’s voice trembled Sunday as she talked about helping Canada’s women’s softball team clinch a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
"I love this country, I love softball, I love playing for this team," the catcher said, the words sticking slightly in her throat. "It’s been a part of me since I was a 19 year old at my first try out. It’s everything, man. It’s kind of who I am right now."
Rafter, now 33, is one of just three players on the current national squad who played for Canada when softball was last in the Olympics at the Bejing Games in 2008. Canada finished fourth.
After beating Brazil 7-0 at the Americas softball Olympic qualifier in Surrey, B.C., on Sunday, the team now has another chance to bring home gold.
"It’s been a long journey, it’s been a growing journey," Rafter said. "But I’m just excited for the teammates, excited for all the kids that haven’t had a chance to do this."
Jenny Gilbert, Holly Speers, Jenn Salling and Larissa Franklin all scored in the bottom of the third inning for Canada on Sunday.
Rafter was also a big part of the victory, scoring three runs, including a walk-off homer in the fifth that ended the game on the mercy rule.
Her success was no surprise to coach Mark Smith.
"She’s that emotional leader that everyone gravitates towards," he said, adding that the catcher spent much of the summer trying to re-find her game after having knee surgery last winter.
"She was struggling at the plate and down on herself and frustrated. It’s really ironic that this week, she came up with some big hits at some big times and settled the pitching staff and threw runners out and did a lot of the things that we’ve always known her to do."
Veteran pitcher Danielle Lawrie also credited Rafter with helping the entire team to succeed.
"Kaleigh’s been consistent for us behind the dish and I can’t say enough about how much work she does behind the scenes, with scouting, going to games, telling the pitchers the scouting reports. She makes me look good," she said.
Lawrie, 32, was a stalwart presence on the mound for the Canadians on Sunday, throwing eight strikeouts over five innings and allowing just one hit.
Samira Tanaka allowed six runs, seven hits and three walks for No. 17 Brazil before she was relieved by Fernanda Ayumi Shiroma in the fourth inning.
Tanaka did not allow any hits in the single inning she pitched.
Canada, ranked third in the world, was the top team heading into the qualifying tournament and gave up just two runs in seven games.
Both runs came Saturday as the team dropped a 2-1 decision to No. 5 Mexico.
The victory secured the Mexicans an Olympic spot. The No. 1-ranked Americans clinched their own spot by winning the 2018 World Championships and Japan, ranked No. 2, will get a home-team berth.
Olympic veterans Lawrie, Rafter and Jenn Salling met after the loss to Mexico and talked about how they could help the group regain the perspective they’d need to win on Sunday.
"I think as heartbreaking as (Saturday) was, it was a huge learning moment for our team," Rafter said. "And if we want to truly be on the stage to win a gold medal next year, we needed a game like that more than we needed to roll through that game and win."
The group learned from the loss and those lessons will help as they prepare for Tokyo, Lawrie said.
"I think these next nine months are about finding ways we can be better when the pressure’s on," she said. "And that’s just all athletes. You have to truly love and be able to fuel yourself when the pressure’s on. And I think our team’s really looking forward to that challenge."
Sunday’s win ends a long, busy summer for the Canadians, who also took home silver from last month’s Pan American Games in Peru, and who played in the National Pro Fastpitch league as the Canadian Wild. The squad also took home first place from July’s Canada Cup in Surrey, B.C.
This year’s packed schedule was just part of the preparation the group has put in so far, Smith said.
"I know how hard they’ve worked since 2017 when it was announced (that softball would be back in the Olympics) and I know the hard miles they’ve put in, the work they’ve done," the coach said. "There’s never a guarantee you’re going to be successful, it’s just putting yourself in a place to have success."
Knowing that the sport won’t be in the 2024 Paris Games makes clinching for next year’s event all the more important, he added.
"With softball not in 2024, the reality is that for a large chunk of them — even the younger ones — it’s probably the only Olympic opportunity they’re going to have. So it’s especially sweet for them," he said. "For the older ones, it’s a chance to go back and make right an experience they had 12 years ago that didn’t go the way they’d hoped. I’m just happy for them."