"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.
The superlatives come easy, and the list of achievements is lengthy when discussing Lisa Fernandez. But the best way to put the three-time gold medalist and two-time national champion’s softball career into perspective is this:
When she was pitching, it was almost impossible to get a hit off of her. When she was hitting, it was almost impossible to get her out.
Fernandez, now 50 and an assistant softball coach at UCLA, was the pitcher when the final out in the gold medal games of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics were recorded.
At UCLA, Fernandez led the Bruins to two national championships and two runner-up performances. The U.S. won gold at Atlanta in 1996, at Sydney in 2000 and at Athens in 2004, with Fernandez starring on the mound and at the plate.
She pitched 11 games over those three Olympiads, starting 10 of them. She went 7-1 with a save and an 0.37 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings. As a hitter, she batted .302 in 27 games with three homers and 15 RBIs. This was despite a poor 3-for-31 performance at the plate in the 2000 Games. She rallied to bat .545 in the 2004 Games with an .818 slugging percentage and eight RBIs in nine games.
“I accomplished pretty incredible things,” Fernandez told NCAA.com in 2020 about her career at UCLA. “I’ve always been one who’s been motivated by goals.”
She reached those and more during a remarkable run that saw her win about every honor she could. She was named the 1993 Honda-Broderick Cup as college female Athlete of the Year and was referred to by the Los Angeles Times as “… conceivably the best female collegiate softball player ever.”
In winning the Honda-Broderick Cup, Fernandez bested such legendary athletes as soccer superstar Mia Hamm and basketball great Sheryl Swoopes.
UCLA won national championships in her freshman and junior years, in 1990 and 1992, and was the runner-up in her sophomore and a senior seasons in 1991 and 1993. In 1992, she was 29-0 with a 0.14 ERA. She pitched 196 1/3 innings for the Bruins that year and struck out 220, while only allowing seven runs total and four earned runs. She allowed just 77 hits and had 22 shutouts.
In her senior season, Fernandez led the nation in both hitting and pitching. She batted .509 with an .821 slugging percentage, while as a pitcher, she was 33-3 with an 0.25 ERA, six no-hitters and 348 strikeouts in 249 2/3 innings.
In 2020, ESPN chose players to make up the greatest collegiate softball players ever. Voters chose Jennie Finch of Arizona over Fernandez as the team’s right-handed pitcher. In noting those who were left out, ESPN referred to Fernandez as “arguably the greatest all-around player in the sport’s history.”
In addition, it added that she “belongs on college softball’s metaphorical Mount Rushmore.”
She served as a role model for scores of young women who looked to make something of themselves. When she first took up softball as a girl, a coach told her she’d never make it as a pitcher. She went on to be arguably the greatest pitcher ever.
She made the most of what she had and told Long Beach Magazine in 2011 that she took seriously the notion that she was a role model.
“When you choose to be an athlete and choose to put yourself in that situation, I take it with a lot of pride,” she said. “I want to be that role model. I think it’s neat when you can bring happiness to other people and help them when it looks like things are getting tough. There’s a way to excel. To be a role model, I’ve just been blessed. God has given me some incredible physical and mental abilities, but I’ve also been very fortunate to put myself into positions which allowed me to prosper. You have to be thankful and be able to give back. If I can help these kids in any way, that’s the way it should be.”
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