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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Gator softball Olympic dreams come true

Three Gators softball players, including 2014 & 2015 National Champions Aubree Munro and Kelsey Stewart play for Gold in Tokyo. They are the first Gator softball players to play for the USA Olympic team.

Aubree Munro catches during Florida's 7-1 win against Kansas on Feb. 21, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
Aubree Munro catches during Florida's 7-1 win against Kansas on Feb. 21, 2015, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

Before former UF softball captain Aubree Munro wore the orange and blue, she drew pictures of herself playing softball on Team USA rocking a No. 1 jersey.

Former Gator softball second baseman and shortstop Kelsey Stewart said she always believed she would go to the Olympics, too. She initially planned to swing, vault and flip her way onto the five rings a la Simone Biles.

Stewart and Munro, who each graduated from UF with degrees in telecommunication in 2016, didn’t arrive at their goals the same way, but long before they left for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, both had aspirations to play for the United States on the world’s largest sporting stage. 

For several years after the catcher saw the 2004 Olympic team play in her hometown of Brea, California, Munro lived and breathed red, white and blue. Even her fourth grade school projects reflected those colors.

Munro’s teacher instructed her to draw what she wanted to be when she grew up. Munro wrote: “I will be an Olympian.” 

Stewart competed in gymnastics until she was 15 years old but eventually lost interest. She showed her athletic prowess in basketball, cheerleading, soccer and volleyball. Finally, after growing up inspired by the likes of Caitlin Lowe, Tairia Flowers and Laura “Bergie” Berg, she found herself on the infield dirt of a softball field.

When the International Olympic Committee removed softball from the games in 2008, the future Gators said they felt gutted. 

“It was like a dream that was taken away,” Stewart said, “and we could do nothing about it.”

The duo merged their paths in Gainesville in 2012. Munro was elected captain in her debut 2013 spring season. In her career, she committed only four errors behind the plate in 1,423 chances. In the same four years, Stewart had 357 hits and a .391 batting average, both of which stand alone atop UF’s career records. They won two national titles and made the Women’s College World Series All-Tournament Team in 2014 and 2015. 


Kelsey Stewart softball.jpg
Kelsey Stewart bats during Florida's doubleheader sweep against Jacksonville on Feb. 17, 2016, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.


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With softball out of the Olympic cycle, they thought the WCWS in Oklahoma City was it. They believed they had reached the peak of their sport.  Everything changed with a vote.

In August 2016, the IOC decided to bring softball back into the games for Tokyo. Elated, the pair’s dreams came back to life. 

“I felt like a little kid again,” Stewart said. “I was dreaming big and no one could tell me anything different.”

Both players made the USA Women’s National Team in a January 2016 tryout while still playing college ball. 

In the final game of the 2018 World Championship, Munro hit an RBI double in the 10th inning with two outs to tie the Olympic-bid clinching game. Stewart proceeded to hit a single to drive in Michelle Moultrie, who played centerfield at UF from 2009 to 2012, defeating Japan 7-6.

In October 2019, they were named to the U.S. Olympic roster. Stewart, Munro and Moultrie were going to Tokyo. 

“We’re the best of friends; we’re like sisters,” Stewart said. “It’s a special bond. It's definitely a crazy bond that we have like all 18 of us [on the Olympic roster] but especially us three.”

Munro’s mom jokes the number from Munro’s drawing represents her because, at 5 foot 10 inches, she is tall and lanky like the number one.

“It's what I dreamed of when I was a kid,” Munro said. “It's been my number, my whole life, so I'm very attached to it. It’s a huge honor.”

Now full circle from when she watched Team USA play in Brea, she earned the opportunity to play in front of fans all over the country in their hometowns, like Gainesville. 

Team USA played in the nationwide Stand Beside Her Tour in February 2020 and March 2021, when Munro traveled from her current hometown of Naples, Florida, to play at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium twice. Munro relishes her memories at UF and how her experiences in big moments prepared her for the international stage. The former Gator says winning a championship is a familiar feeling.

“I kinda feel like [National] Championship vibes right now,” Munro said to Stewart at the 2018 World Championships


Olympic Softball photo.jpg
Aubree Munro (1) and Kelsey Stewart (7) pose for a photo in their Team USA uniforms.


When Team USA scrimmaged the Gators in March, Munro received tips from head coach Tim Walton, and both Munro and Stewart say they know they can call Walton at any time.

Stewart said she has grown closer to Walton after her Gator days, probably because he doesn’t have to yell at her anymore. She visits the coach whenever she comes to Florida from her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Stewart said he knows how to talk to her as a player when she’s frustrated and praised him as being an awesome human being as well as a coach.

Stewart is excited to grow the sport of softball. Softball is building popularity in the U.S., as the 2021 WCWS recorded its highest viewer ratings ever. Even internationally, the sport features in Japanese video games and airport jerseys. Yet, it will not be part of the Paris 2024 Olympics and is a toss-up for inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles games. Stewart sees that, as Gators, the trio was able to affect how people look at softball in the United States, and now they can do so on a global level. At the Olympics, they can grow the game in Europe, Japan and countries where it doesn't seem like they play softball.

“Being able to just be a little part of growing my game and putting softball in the Olympics for every Olympics and not just Tokyo is really the goal,” Stewart said. “I think having the platform that I do to give back to this game that has given me so much is really just unbelievable, and it’s something I truly owe to the game.”

Munro said she will decorate her room at the Olympic Village with notes of people who have supported her career, a group she always relied on to motivate on proving right beyond naysayers. Her sister collected around 50 messages from people like childhood best friends, UF coaches and former teammates. While loved ones are not allowed to travel to Japan amid COVID-19, Munro said seeing these people from all along her journey will make everything feel a little bit more familiar.

“We all have families that have been a part of this for a really long time, so it's not just my dream; it's like my family's dream,” she said.

Stewart, Munro and Moultrie landed in Iwakuni, Japan, July 6 for practices and training games and travel to Tokyo on July 14. Due to their playing schedule, they will not be in attendance for the lighting of the eternal flame nor the closing ceremonies.

The first pitch will be thrown for Team USA July 20 against Italy at 11 p.m. EST. The top two from the six-team round-robin advance to the gold medal game. The stars and stripes play each of the five other international teams: Italy, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan. 

Historically, the biggest threat has been host Japan, which defeated star-studded Team USA in 2008. Munro and Stewart said they need to be on their A-game every day, as they know each opponent could send them packing any given day.

If they win the gold medal? Stewart wants to keep it safe & visible, on her neck.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to come off,” Stewart said.

Munro now gets to bring her childhood drawing to life and wear No. 1 for Team USA, as the trio attempts to become Florida softball’s first Olympic champions. Team USA’s full schedule, based on your time zone, can be seen here.

Contact Julianna Reichenbach at jreichenbach@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @Julianna_Reich 

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