Softball umpire's goal is staying masked

For Hawaiian Okuda, calling game, not fame, is focus of preparations



July 18, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

With less than a month to go before the opening ceremony, lots of folks are tweaking their performances and putting on their Games faces.

Like, for example, Leilani Okuda.

She's working out in the batting cage. Checking her form in a full-length mirror. Practicing martial arts and Zen meditation.

And hoping to stay anonymous once she reaches Athens.

Okuda, a Honolulu native, is one of 12 softball umpires - six men and six women - who will officiate the 32 games from Aug. 14-23.

"If you do the job right, no one remembers your name," she says.

Living on a Pacific island sounds like paradise, but it isolates Okuda, an internationally certified umpire, from many top competitions that require expensive travel. She gets a lot of work when Western Athletic Conference schools come to play the University of Hawaii, and on a few occasions, she has traveled to the mainland for major tournaments.

But mostly she prepares on her own, drawing on 24 years of umpiring experience. She works out in the batting cage to improve how she tracks the ball and does martial arts to sharpen her reflexes. The meditation is to help her keep her cool.

"Umpires are the worst critics of themselves," she says. "I don't take anything for granted."

Okuda, 39, says she came to the attention of international softball officials in 1998 while umpiring the World Cup in Japan "and from then on I've been lucky enough to get invited back."

Last year, when the U.S. Cup was played in Hawaii, Okuda was behind the plate for the title game, when the American team beat Canada behind the pitching of two-time gold medallist Lisa Fernandez.

The pitcher who impresses her the most is Jenny Finch, the 6-foot-1 blonde best known as ESPN's "Hottest Female Athlete."

"The first time I saw her was a real eye-opener," Okuda says, referring to Finch's 67-mph fastball, not her looks. "I just heard it; I didn't see it."

Okuda says she switched from playing softball to umpiring when her skills leveled off, "and that's been a blessing because I've gone higher than I would have as a player."

A teacher at McKinley High School, Okuda won Coach of the Year honors this season from the Oahu Interscholastic Association despite her teams almost always being overmatched.

"We come from a small community, where losing seasons are easy to come by. We've got beginning Little League skills at the high school level," she explains.

What draws the admiration of the league is that Okuda sometimes has just nine players, and yet never forfeited a game, allows developmentally disadvantaged girls to play and instituted a four-hour, after-school study hall that worked wonders on the grade-point averages of failing students but played havoc with softball practice.

"It's important for these girls to do well at something, no matter how small," she says. "For many of the girls, this is the only experience they have in belonging to something and working together."

Teamwork also will be needed at the Olympics, with umpires from eight nations making up the three crews.

"We want to make sure that we're in position, we hustle and we're fair. We may have some language barriers at times," she says. "But balls and strikes are universal."

Gymnastics selections

The U.S. women's gymnastics team and its head coach will be named tonight as part of NBC's Olympics coverage.

The athletes have been at Karolyi Ranch outside Houston since Tuesday, practicing and performing for national team coordinator (and Bela's wife) Martha Karolyi. They had one competition Friday evening and will go again today at 2:30 p.m.

Six gymnasts will be chosen for the U.S. squad.

For Courtney Kupets of Gaitersburg and Courtney McCool, winners of the Olympic trials in Anaheim, Calif., earlier this month, all that's left is showing that they are injury-free.

Carly Patterson, who shares the national title with Kupets, must demonstrate she has conquered the jitters that marred her routines at the trials.

Karolyi and the other two members of the selection committee most likely will choose another all-around performer - perhaps Terin Humphrey or Allyse Ishino - and then round out the squad with two athletes who specialize in two of the four routines.

The announcement will air at 8:30 p.m.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

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