Laura Hirai has a 2020 vision as softball returns to the schedule for Tokyo Olympics
- Credit: Archant
Like most 16-year-olds, Laura Hirai’s primary concern today (Thursday) is her GCSE results. But four days after the end of the Rio 2016 Olympics, when the baton was passed to Tokyo and a new four-cycle began, the teenager is also dreaming about being involved in the 2020 Games.
Laura, who lives in Brooklands Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb, has represented Great Britain in baseball and softball at youth level this summer – and both sports will be returning to the Olympic schedule in Japan, with the men playing baseball and the women competing at softball.
Coincidentally – or perhaps it is written in the stars – Laura lived in Tokyo when she was younger, and indeed that is where she fell in love with the game, and where her sporting journey began.
It would seem fitting if her path now leads her back to Japan’s capital in four years’ time.
“I lived there for about five years because my dad had to work there,” Laura told Ham&High Sport. “It was on TV all the time - baseball’s a very popular sport in Japan, I think it’s probably one of their main sports.
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“We lived near to a professional baseball stadium so at least once a month we’d go and watch games.
My mum [Yuki, who is from Japan] used to play softball in high school and it was something we’d watch at night over dinner. It was on every day so it was something I was always watching and I gradually fell in love with it.
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“[The Olympics] is something that I’m definitely looking up to, for sure. I’m working really hard and listening to everything that’s being said to try to improve and be part of 2020. It’s something I definitely want to be part of, somehow.
“I think it’s definitely possible. If I just put all my effort into it and work every day and improve every day, then for sure I definitely have a chance.”
It is not an unrealistic dream. Laura, who plays her club baseball for the London Mets in Finsbury Park, was part of the Great Britain Under-19 team that won gold at the ESF Junior Women’s European Softball Championship in Barcelona this summer, finishing with a 10-0 winning record.
It was the first time a GB fast-pitch softball team had ever won a championship – and Laura was also in the national Under-18 team that competed at the CEB European Junior Baseball Championship in Gijon, Spain last month.
It was another historic moment. The team’s victory over Sweden was their first win in the championship for 22 years, and it was followed by another success against Russia.
Just as notable, perhaps, is the fact that Laura is the only girl in the baseball team – and she believes she has benefited from being part of a boys’ squad.
“Definitely, especially when it comes to strength and conditioning,” she said. “When I was in Spain with the baseball team, the amount of work in strength and conditioning that the coaches put in is immense, compared to softball.
“Because I’m playing with boys I’m training at boys’ level and obviously they’re stronger and taller and physically more powerful than women, so it was a tough two weeks - but it was worth it.
“Especially when it comes to softball, I feel more confident, I feel strong, I even feel better in a way than the other girls because I’ve trained with boys.”
Laura, who used to play football for Hampstead FC, could also have an opportunity to play softball in America herself – for a college or university – in two years’ time when she has done her A-levels.
One thing is for sure – she has a strong and dedicated support team behind her, led by her parents.
Her father James said: “I tend to do the driving and that kind of thing, while my wife is really focused on her diet. Because she’s studying and doing sports pretty much any time she’s not studying, she’s making sure she gets enough food.
“I was manager of the Under-19 softball team in Barcelona, handling logistics and administration. I was just making sure that everything was set up and scheduled properly. I guess it worked because they won!
“We just try to do as much as we can, because it does involve a lot of voluntary work on behalf of everyone – from the coaches to all the staff and everyone doing the organisation. There’s no official funding and I think that’s something they’re looking to apply for [with a view to the Olympics].”