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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Southland Focus : SOFTBALL

Is Dot All There Is? : Sheila Cornell Says Gold-Medal Effort in Softball Wasn't a One-Woman Show

A Look at Area Athletes Making a Mark in Atlanta

August 02, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Dot Richardson gets all the headlines:

"Shortstop With a Surgeon's Hands."

"Doctor Trades Scalpel for Glove, Bat and Ball."

"Doctor Has Dreams of Olympics, Own Practice."

"What Softball Ordered: A Doctor at Shortstop."

"Operation Softball."

As you page through the U.S. softball team's file of newspaper clippings, you wonder if there is anyone else on the team.

Quietly, politely, deferentially, first baseman Sheila Cornell wonders too.

"I wouldn't call it resentment," Cornell says. "But once in a while, I'll wonder, 'Did anyone notice what I did?' "

Tuesday night, Richardson copped another headline when her controversial two-run homer was the difference in the United States' 3-1 gold-medal victory over China.

Once again, the media stampeded toward Richardson, leaving Cornell and others in their pen prints. How do you compete with softball's Charlene Hustle, the rat-a-tat talking shortstop who doubles as an orthopedic surgeon?

Well, you don't. Reporters know where the easy leads are, and the Dot Richardson story all but climbs on your keyboard and types itself.

Meanwhile, Cornell looks in from the fringe.

At 34, her career has almost paralleled Richardson's going back to their days as UCLA teammates in the early 1980s. Like Richardson, Cornell became one of the greats of the game: a slick-fielding, power-hitting first baseman for Team USA.

Cornell is a 10-time Amateur Softball Assn. All-American. She has twice led the ASA in home runs.

"She is what I call 'quiet thunder,' " Team USA Coach Ralph Raymond says. "She comes in, does her job, day in and day out. She's not looking for headlines. She just wants to be part of the ballclub."

Richardson made the Olympic Games hers with her flair for the dramatic, almost calling her shot with an Olympic-debut homer against Puerto Rico, then capping it all with her controversial home run against the Chinese.

But were it not for Cornell, Team USA would have been packing long before the gold-medal game.

It was Cornell who put the United States into the medal round with a two-run homer that beat the Chinese last Friday night, 3-2.

And, two nights later, in the first medal-round rematch with the Chinese, Cornell broke up a scoreless tie with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 10th.

But, unlike Richardson's, Cornell's postgame comments don't tend to stick. She speaks of her heroics as though she was assembling a radio.

"I was just focused on the moment and trying to do the job at hand," she said after her game-winning homer against China.

Richardson is the face of the U.S. team, Cornell the heart.

Cornell is the players' representative, the clubhouse leader and team psychologist.

"I'm the rock everyone leans on," she says.

Players come to her to settle team disputes, scheduling issues and the usual inner turmoil.

"I bring stability," she says. "I think the team all respects me. People come to me if there's a problem on the team. I think I can look at things objectively."

Richardson calls Cornell "a brilliant women, very rational. She sees both sides of the story. She's got the logical answers."

Cornell is never going to be Richardson. Why even try, although Cornell, too, once considered a career as an orthopedic surgeon after getting her master's degree at USC with a 3.96 grade-point average.

But for Cornell, the combination softball career-medical school combo was too much to contemplate. Cornell can only marvel how Richardson has managed to do both.

"She has energy that is otherworldly," Cornell says.

Cornell remembers the night a fire alarm went off in the UCLA dorms, and how she wearily dragged herself out of bed only to see a wide-eyed Richardson at the top of the stairs, leading the procession like a Girl Scout leader on a camp-out.

"I remember saying, 'I can't deal with this,' " Cornell says, laughing.

Cornell, in fact, put on hold a career as a physical therapist to concentrate on her Olympic quest.

While Richardson exudes energy, Cornell admits to exhaustion.

The three-year quest of making the Olympic team, combined with practice and a nationwide barnstorming tour, has left her drained.

Cornell, who lives in Diamond Bar, has not been home since April. Her fiance, Joel Douty, has juggled his schedule as a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain to be with Cornell as much as possible.

Cornell longs to return to normality, to settle down--but at the same time can't envision life without softball.

She has kept herself in textbook physical condition, using her background in kinesiology to construct the most efficient workouts. She and a partner run a business in which they teach their techniques--"speed, agility and quickness training"--to up-and-coming athletes.

She plans to one day devote herself full time to the business, but says her softball career is far from over. She is not counting herself out for the Sydney Games of 2000, when she will be 38.

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