Golden Girls

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U.S. women's softball coach Mike Candrea is lifted up by his team after they beat Australia Monday to win the gold

On Sunday night Mike Candrea, coach of the U.S. Olympic softball team, had a dream. His wife Sue, who at 49 died of a brain aneurism just one month ago, appeared before him with a simple message. "She walked into the room," says Candrea, whose team was competing in the gold medal game against Australia the next day, "and told me to chill out."

Candrea took her advice. He bet one player that he'd tattoo his arm if she tattooed a home run. He let star pitcher Jennie Finch spray glitter in her teammates' hair. But at the end he couldn't stop the tears. Carrying big bats on their shoulders and heavy feelings in their hearts, the U.S. women's softball team pounded Australia 5-1 at the Olympic Softball Stadium on Monday, clinching its third straight gold medal.

Want a real Dream Team? The U.S. finished 9-0 for the tournament, and until the sixth inning of yesterday's game, when Australia strung together a small two-out rally, the team's ERA was 0.00 (they outscored opponents 51-1 over the nine games). U.S. third baseman Crystal Bustos hit two home runs in the gold medal game, including one shot that landed somewhere in Crete, giving her five for the tournament. The other seven teams hit five home runs combined. Says one fan: "These girls could beat the Milwaukee Brewers."

Candrea had a second premonition before the game. His hunch told him that although three-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez had pitched against Australia the night before, she, not glamour-girl Finch, would get the start. The choice might have upset male viewers, but it worked out flawlessly on the field. Painting the corners and mixing in a wicked changeup, Fernandez pitched a four-hitter, at one point retiring 18 straight batters.

After a soft grounder to short clinched it, the Americans hurled their gloves and piled up at the pitchers mound. But the sport's officials might not join the celebration. Softball has an America problem — Team USA hasn't lost in a year, and since only four countries (Australia, Japan, this year's bronze medallist, and China) are true competitors, the International Olympics Committee has threatened to drop the sport, though it's safe for Beijing in 2008. U.S. players don't understand the concerns. "I can't imagine being good at something as a bad thing," says catcher Stacey Nuveman, who also homered on Monday. "If that's the case, shame on the world. In many sports there are teams that dominate. Look at table tennis. It's China, China, China."

The players aren't only worried about their sport's future. They know the Olympics were a respite for Candrea, who hid his grief over the last few weeks to guide the U.S. to the championship. But now the ride is over. "It helped," Candrea says. "That's all I can say." At the post-game press conference, with Candrea sitting on her left, Fernandez began to choke up. "I don't know Mike Candrea that well — he only started coaching me last year," Fernandez said. "But the one thing I prayed to God I could do was play the best softball I possibly could, just to give one piece of solace to him." Candrea buried his eyes in his hands. "I just love this team," he said. "This is the greatest moment of my life."