Fire-balling Olympic pitcher and Salinas native Monica Abbott helps celebrate Steinbeck.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Driving up Highway 101 north at 65mph, Monica Abbott figured her car must be smoking and ready to explode. Why else would the woman driving alongside her be frantically waving and screaming?
“[The woman] yells, ‘My daughter loves you!’” Abbott says. “‘Keep throwing that ball!’”
Moments like these are among the interesting things that happen when you emerge from Salinas Valley to win an Olympic medal. On Sunday, Feb. 27, Abbott will join other athletes from Salinas – including San Francisco 49er Chris Dalman and 400-meter relay Olympic gold medalist Alvin Harrison – for a Meet the Local Heroes panel as part of a day-long celebration of John Steinbeck’s 109th birthday at the National Steinbeck Center.
The event also features free birthday cake, rides on the Wheelie Mobilee, children’s author Adrienne Momi and songs by the Mission Park School Choir.
For North Salinas High School alum Abbott, the month has also seen her lead local skill-building sessions and a President’s Day weekend tournament at the Salinas Sports Complex.
Her recent move back to the area also means a return to the place where a small girl once dreamed big: Abbott knew she wanted to play softball in college, go to the Olympics and play softball for a living as early as elementary school.
“I did a report in fifth grade highlighting the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta,” she says, “and knew instantly that I wanted to compete.”
At 6 feet 3 inches, the girl isn’t so little any more. She’s even hit a recent growth spurt – of sorts. “I’m super tall but I just realized that I love wearing high heels!” she says.
Her resume isn’t short either. At North Salinas High, she won a gold medal in 2002 at the Junior Pan Am Championships and a year later was the 18-and-under MVP at the Canada Cup. After taking a scholarship at the University of Tennessee, she set career and single season NCAA records her senior season with 189 victories, 2,440 strikeouts, 112 shutouts, 253 appearances and 1,448 innings pitched.
She finished her career at Tennessee with 23 no-hitters and six perfect games, and was named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2007.
Abbott cites Salinas as a vital part of the competitiveness that has carried her to such lofty accomplishments. “Being from Salinas has taught me to fight, how to never give up,” she says.
She adds that her hometown has helped inform her own m.o.
“My personal motto is ‘Live to bring it,’ and everyday I try to live my life this way. Whether it’s preparing for a test, a speech, or time in the circle, for that moment I want to be able to give it all I have.”
According to North High classmate and teammate Rachelle Morales, who won two CCS championships with Abbott, she has lived by this motto for a long time.
“Our championships had a lot to do with the work ethic and leadership displayed by Monica,” Morales says. “She was always a go-getter, never giving up or backing down.”
After the 2008 Olympics, in which Abbott helped no-hit Venezuela and pitched five perfect innings against the Netherlands to extend U.S.A.’s Olympic winning streak to 20 games (Team USA finished with a silver), women’s softball was discontinued as a sport.
“We won’t give up trying to get back in [the Olympics] for 2020, and until then we will continue to build the National Pro Fast-pitch League,” she says. “I want to teach society that they need to demand women’s sports attention as much as they do men’s. Otherwise their daughters, granddaughters and nieces will never get the same opportunities.”
Today Abbott has the opportunity and the means to live a lot of places. The spot she chose: Spreckels.
“I like it there,” Abbott says of her new home. “It’s quiet. It’s family-friendly with lots of kids. It gives me a chance to step away.”
It’s also close to the home she shares with Steinbeck.
“Being from Salinas is pretty cool,” she says. “I’m proud to be from here and hope to inspire a lot of the local talent to follow their dreams, to focus their energy into the positive.”
John Steinbeck’s 109th birthday happens 10am-5pm Sunday, Feb. 27, at The National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas. The Meet the Local Heroes panel takes place at noon. Free to public. 775-4721.