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Booth comes up golden

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? - The Reynolds graduate remembers her hard-fought battle to make the U.S. National softball team
by: Jeff Spiegel Debbie Booth earned a spot on the US national team for the 1991 Pan-America games, then focused on a teaching career and bringing up her family.

By Jeff Spiegel

staff writer

The year was 1982 and Debbie Booth was a freshman at Reynolds High School with dreams of playing for the US National Softball Team. Over the next 10 years, this self-proclaimed, 'goofy girl' from Gresham would climb to the pinnacle of her sport only to seemingly walk away from her childhood dream.

After a solid high school career, she verbally committed to play softball for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. At the time, players from non-Division I programs were not allowed to try out for the national team, and yet Booth was very content with her college decision.

In a last-ditch, almost joking effort, Booth and her mom decided to send her portfolio out to five of the larger programs to see what would happen.

Just two weeks before leaving for Tacoma, Booth got a phone call from the coach at the University of Hawaii asking her to come to campus for a visit. Having never left the mainland before, the 17-year-old Booth headed off by herself to meet with the coaches.

After discussing her options with family and friends, Booth decided that Hawaii was in fact her best option.

'My dream was to play for the national team, and I thought the best way to do that was to play Division I ball where I might get seen by more coaches, and since they offered me a full-ride scholarship we changed gears and I went to school 3,000 miles away,' Booth said.

Unfortunately for Booth, her experience in Hawaii was far from paradise. Aside from doing her best to adapt to a culture that included essentially learning a new language, Booth also ran into problems with her new coaches. After being recruited as a shortstop, Booth was quickly told, 'you're never going to be our shortstop.'

This experience as a whole nearly drove Booth away from the softball, but a summer back with family and friends was just what she needed.

'I came home that year and played summer ball and it really made me go, 'Oh yeah, this is a sport I enjoy and am good at,' so I became very determined to go to my coaches and prove that, yes, I can be your shortstop,' Booth said.

Over the next year and a half at Hawaii Booth's performance did earn her the starting shortstop position, however she ultimately realized that she needed to be closer to home. After weighing her options, Booth decided to transfer to Pacific Lutheran to continue her career.

While emotionally and physically the change was good for Booth, she also understood the grave consequences of her decision. Deep down she knew that this choice all but disqualified her from any chance at the US National Team.

Booth joined a very strong Pacific Lutheran squad who contended for a national title year in and year out. During those final two and a half years of eligibility Booth was reminded about why she fell in love with softball in the first place.

'I thoroughly embraced the opportunity just to go and play ball and be with a group of girls who felt like sisters,' Booth said.

After a disappointing exit from nationals in her senior season, Booth got the break of a lifetime. The national team was about to conduct their tryouts for the 1991 Pan-American Games, and for the first time they opened the door for small-school players to try out for the squad.

The only requirement was that players had earned All-American honors, which Booth had, so she boarded a plan for Missouri with 44 other players hoping to achieve their dream. At the conclusion of the tryout they selected five women to advance to the final tryout with the returning team members and select Division I stars. Both Booth and a teammate of hers from Pacific Lutheran had made the initial cut.

'I had letters with US Olympic Training Center logo on them and I am flipping out because I loved the Olympics all growing up, and here they were sending me mail inviting me to come!' Booth said.

For Booth, that tryout was just the beginning, as suddenly the small-school All-Americans were replaced with some of the best players in the world.

'For them this is old hat, and here I am and taking pictures of everything red, white, and blue like I can't believe I'm here,' Booth joked.

As the tryout began, the coaches told the players that their performance alone would determine who made the team - something Booth was able to cling to throughout the week. Just a few days into the tryout Booth had found her groove, notching hits and making plays in the field that allowed her to survive the mid-week cut. After seven grueling days in the summer heat, the coaches had made their decisions on who deserved to make the squad.

Suddenly, Booth's hopes and dreams came to rest on a simple piece of paper posted in a narrow dormitory hallway in Colorado Springs.

'It was really late at night when the coaches posted the team, and I tried to act calm and cool, like it was no big deal, and I scan the list and I see my name and I was thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me, you've got to be kidding me,'' Booth said.

After rushing to tell her college that she too had made the team, the two rushed across the street to a 7-11 to call her parents from a pay phone. Among the players who did not make the team were soon-to-be stars Dot Richardson and Michelle Smith, players who went on to win multiple Olympic gold medals and eventually earn spots in the softball Hall of Fame.

The Pan-American games began that August and after time spent training in Florida, the team departed for Cuba as the favorites to win gold. While the whole experience was somewhat of a blur for Booth, she managed to perform extremely well throughout the tournament while alternating between a starting and a reserve role.

Ultimately the US dominated the tournament, going 9-0 on their way to the gold medal. Booth finished the tournament 5-for-9 (.555) from the plate with a double, a triple and three RBIs.

Right around that time the sport of softball got more great news when it was announced that for the first time ever, it would become an Olympic sport in the summer of 1996.

For Booth, that news was met with mixed emotions. On one hand she had grown up idolizing the Olympics, while on the other hand, she also had dreams of becoming a mom. Surprisingly, her decision between the two was an easy one.

'I chose to step away from softball because I had always looked forward to being a wife and a mom, and to try and make a go for the Olympic team five years down the road would have meant relocating to a city that had professional ball, and that's not what I wanted,' she said. 'Playing for the national team in the Pan-Am games was my dream and that was exactly what I was given the opportunity to do, so I was very content to hang up my cleats and just revel in the fact that all of this actually happened.'

In 1996, Booth became a mom for the first time with the birth of her son Mitchell, and then again two years later with the birth of her daughter Katelin. Since their birth, Booth has spent time as a softball coach at Reynolds and Portland State in addition to her time teaching at Good Shepherd.

As to whether she has any regrets about everything, Booth simply tells a story of watching the Olympics with her family.

'We were watching the 2000 Olympics, and I put my kids in my jerseys with the gold medal and I thought to myself that this was exactly where I wanted to be when the Olympics were going on,' Booth said.

Booth still teaches at Good Shepherd but is no longer coaching softball - instead spending her time cheering from the stands.

Where are they Now is a summer series appearing in each Saturday edition of The Outlook.