In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily launches a series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Daily sports writer Aria Gerson continues the series with this story.
Lou Allan still gets chills thinking about it.
She stood on the podium — gold medal around her neck — watching as the flag went up and listening as The Star-Spangled Banner played.
Young girls sat in the stands wearing USA T-shirts, starstruck, already wishing that they could stand up there one day. And among the audience was one person who had been there, who knew the indescribable feeling, whose footsteps Allan had followed: her grandma, Sheila Cornell-Douty.
Even now, it’s a moment Allan will never forget.
Growing up in the 1970s, Cornell-Douty didn’t have a lot of female role models to look up to. Most women athletes didn’t get much attention back then, and her sport — softball — got even less. Instead, she idolized Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey.
Watching the Olympics was a family affair. Her mom had played several sports growing up, and her grandma had been involved with the Girls’ Athletic Club. From the time Cornell-Douty was in elementary school, the three would gather and watch the Olympics together. Cornell-Douty was enthralled, and she knew she wanted to compete there someday. But at that time, the idea of competing in the Olympics was just as unrealistic as that of donning Dodger blue and patrolling first base. Softball, after all, wasn’t an Olympic sport, and softball was what she loved.
But then that all changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that softball would become an Olympic sport, effective in 1996. Cornell-Douty would be 36 then, at the twilight of her career. She knew this was her shot, and she knew she had to go for it.
She quit her job as a physical therapist and developed her own training regimen. She went to camps, tournaments and showcases. She was constantly under a microscope. Despite competing against much younger athletes, she made the team. It had all been worth it.
“(The Olympics were) something unlike anything else,” Cornell-Douty said. “ … We opened against Puerto Rico and I remember we were lined up on the sidelines and they were announcing the teams and I was getting tears in my eyes since I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really it. This is for real. I’m really in the Olympics. We’re really playing.’ ”
And the most surreal moment of all was standing on the podium, gold medal around her neck, as Team USA was honored for winning the first-ever Olympic softball tournament.
Allan started t-ball at age five. It was only natural, given the pedigree of her grandma — who went on to win another gold medal in 2000 and was inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame and the International Softball Hall of Fame. Though many families pushed their kids into the sports they had played, Cornell-Douty didn’t want her granddaughter to be pressured by the weight of a legacy. The first thing on Cornell-Douty’s agenda was just to let Allan play.
“I felt it was extremely important from a very young age, number one was that she came to me and wanted to practice and work out and do all of that stuff,” Cornell-Douty said. “ … This is t-ball, she’s out there to just go play and enjoy the game and have fun and learn some stuff, but you know, she’s five years old.”
When Cornell-Douty attended Allan’s first game, she walked in late to find her granddaughter already on base. But not for long.
“She comes running off the base and she came running to us like, ‘Hi grandma! Thanks for coming to my game!’ ” Cornell-Douty said. “And then she ran back.”
That’s when Cornell-Douty knew she was doing something right.
When Allan was around 10, she decided she wanted to follow in her grandma’s footsteps and play softball at a high level. She had seen Cornell-Douty’s medals and began to dream of earning some of her own. So Cornell-Douty and her husband built a batting cage and fielding area, and the former softball star began training the future one.
Like her grandma, Allan became one of the top players in the country. Like her grandma, she played first base and earned a scholarship to a top program — UCLA for Cornell-Douty and Michigan for Allan. Like her grandma, she had her sights set on one thing: the Olympics.
But Allan’s Olympic dreams weren’t always a foregone conclusion. In 2006, the IOC voted to leave softball off the schedule for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Cornell-Douty, along with other former Olympic softball players, wrote letters and lobbied endlessly to reinstate the sport they loved. And in 2016, the decision was official: for 2020, Olympic softball was back on.
Still, though, the future of Olympic softball is uncertain. The IOC hasn’t made a decision yet on the 2024 Olympics, and it’s possible that 2020 could be Allan’s only shot.
“I was super excited that it got put in,” Allan said. “ … 2020 is obviously the (next) one so that is my goal to get to it in the first part. (But) there’s so many different people that are older than me that have so much more experience that are coming back, I don’t know necessarily if I’m gonna make the team or not.”
Whatever happens, Allan already has a taste of the Team USA experience. In 2017 — the summer before she began her freshman year at Michigan — she was chosen for the USA Junior National Team. The United States went 9-0 to take the gold medal at the Junior Women’s Softball World Championship in Clearwater, Fla.
There are plenty of parallels between Allan’s experience and her grandmother’s. After all, both had the defining experience of standing on a podium, wearing gold medals as their flag was raised.
“You can’t beat that,” Allan said. “I mean, you see your flag and you see everything going on around you and all these people and all these little girls that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, USA!’ and hearing the USA chant and all that stuff is so incredible that you can’t describe it. … You’re representing something so much bigger than yourself and that is incredible.”
But their shared understanding goes beyond just the thrill of a championship. In a sport where professional leagues don’t get much attention, college and national team players are the famous ones that every young girl aspires to be.
“There’s always that intensity and it’s just a good thing for little girls to watch and look up to,” Allan said. “The more women’s sports we have in the Olympics is great for these little girls to look up to and show that they have something to look forward to.”
Cornell-Douty remembers touring in the months leading up to the Olympics, traveling to big cities and towns so small they were barely on the map. There, the team would attend games, and at each one, a steady stream of fans came out, waiting for autographs. Sometimes, they were there until one or two in the morning.
Allan, too, visits with fans waiting outside the locker room. She loves the feeling of knowing that they admire her. It gives her something to play for.
Cornell-Douty takes her job as a role model seriously because she grew up at a time when women in sports existed mostly in the shadows. She wants the next generation of athletes — Allan’s generation — to grow up knowing that their possibilities are endless.
Allan does it with a different perspective: she remembers being one of those girls, idolizing her grandma and former Michigan second baseman Sierra Romero. Now that she’s reached some of the highest heights imaginable for a player her age, she wants to give a similar experience to others.
“If I can sit out there and see all these different girls waiting for me, then I’m doing something right,” Allan said. “I’m giving them hope that they have something to look forward to and that’s all I want in the world is to make a difference.”
But for Allan, softball isn’t an endpoint. She has bigger plans for the future. She wants to go to law school, have a career in public policy and become an advocate. Maybe it’s not all that different from softball, anyway. After all, she and her grandma are proof that for women, the sky is the limit. She knows the transformative power of a role model. And she knows what it’s like to be part of something bigger than herself.
“Softball’s … taught me (the skills),” Allan said. “But once I leave the sport, there’s something more beyond, there’s a next chapter in my life that I have to open up.”