It’s an uncharacteristically cold June evening at Riverdale Park, with thick, dark clouds hanging overhead. There’s no rain yet, but the fans in the bleachers know that a storm is coming — Toronto Storm softball team, that is.
The current lineup for the Storm, who play in the Toronto Women’s Softball League, are gearing up for the World Outgames in Copenhagen with some big shoes to fill. The team took gold at the Sydney Gay Games in 2002 and bronze at the Outgames in Montreal in 2002.
Now the team is hoping for a three-peat at the podium in Copenhagen and team captain Val Austin believes the team is positioned to do just that.
“Our goal is always gold,” says Austin, who plays third base. “Secondary to that is to have fun and enjoy ourselves in a city [and] in a country that is welcoming to us.”
Ranging in age from 21 to 54, the players are a tight-knit group. Many played with the Storm’s previous incarnations before joining the league’s competitive division in 2002.
Austin says the team emphasizes fun, physical activity and friendship over winning medals, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about the sport.
As proof coach Sally Jakabowski shows off a large scar running down the middle of her kneecap, the result of a career-ending injury she sustained while playing with the Storm just prior to the trip to compete in Montreal.
“I had the whole knee replaced, so I helped with coaching instead [in Montreal],” she says. After a break Jakabowski returned this spring to help train new players alongside cocoach Bev Henry.
The Storm have only played a few games together so far this season but Jakabowski says the women are showing “good chemistry” and will be ready to represent Toronto at the Outgames, scheduled for the last week in July.
Aside from physical preparation the Storm is also working to raise money to pay for the trip, which costs upward of $3,500 per player. It’s especially difficult because some of the team members have lost jobs in recent months, Austin says.
One such fundraising effort is an event on Thu, Jul 16 at Palais Royale. As well Austin says the team is looking for a sponsor to help keep the trip accessible.
“We want to make sure that people can attend the Outgames if they want to, because it’s a great opportunity,” she says.
The team is also lobbying to ensure their pitcher for the past two years, Megan McHugh, will be able to attend despite barriers in bringing her service animal overseas.
McHugh lives with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes deteriorating vision and hearing. She gets around with assistance of her guide dog Billy, a black Labrador who also serves as the Storm’s mascot.
Unfortunately in order to get to Copenhagen the team’s plane needs to make a stopover in Iceland, which requires dogs to be quarantined for 28 days before entering the country.
McHugh says the team is working with consulate and embassy officials in Iceland to find a compromise that would allow her to transport Billy through the airport and onto her connecting flight.
“Preferably I’d like to walk him through the airport, but if they need to put him in a dog crate to transfer him that’s fine too,” she says.
McHugh will also need to travel with two interveners to assist her with getting around and communicating, adding to her costs.
The Storm would certainly be at a disadvantage without McHugh, an avid sportswoman who boasts one of the fastest pitches in the league.
Watching her throw, the inevitable question arises: is she ever afraid of getting hit with the ball?
“I do get hit with the ball. Sometimes the puck too,” says McHugh, who also plays for the Ice Owls, a (mostly) blind men’s hockey team. “It hurts and I curse a little… [but] if it bothered me I would probably be in the wrong sports.”
When the umpire calls out for the players to take the field the Storm gathers for a quick cheer before what promises to be another electrifying game. Come rain or shine, they’re here to play.
* Updated 10:28am 06/19/09 to correct information about the Toronto Storm’s upcoming fundraiser.