By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Just imagine.
For years, it’s been hard for Nicole Luchanski and the entire Canadian Women’s National Team to fathom the possibilities in a seemingly made-up world where female baseball players can dedicate all of their times and efforts to their sports.
They’ve seen it before, even as recently as just last September at the sixth Women’s Baseball World Cup in Miyazaki, Japan, where the squad met Japanese players who are paid to play the sport they love, and can call baseball their profession.
But now is the time that foggy notion is starting to take on a little bit of a clearer look, at least for Luchanski, and at least for right now. With women’s baseball welcomed into a multi-sport event for the very first time at these Pan Am Games in Ajax, Ont., the title sponsor, CIBC, and its Team Next program helped the 25-year-old pursue training full-time for the six months leading into the games.
Canada’s second baseman was one of 67 athletes chosen for the support, and with it Luchanski has been able to take her game to the next level.
Out on the diamond through four games – and three wins – for the Canadian squad, she is seemingly running faster, hitting the ball harder and further, jumping higher – logging some serious air time on Tuesday to take away a Venezuelan hit – and reaching more of her potential than she ever thought she could.
“It’s funny,” Luchanski said. “At first it was a lot of pressure, because I felt the need to be way better because I was the only one who had all those advantages. But in the end I realize that I really just needed to play my game.
“It has been huge just to get those extra little steps – for example, the jump. I would attribute that to my strength training, which hasn’t changed that much, but my nutrition has – so now I can get more out of each strength session. It’s just little things piling up and piling up until you’re suddenly a step above where you were last year.”
Heading into Canada’s fifth game Saturday night against Venezuela, the native of Edmonton, Alta., ranks atop the leaderboard, going 8-for-15 with 12 total bases and six RBIs. In Wednesday’s late-inning comeback victory over Puerto Rico, Luchanski hit a two-out, bases-loaded, two-run double to secure the victory for her team.
“It feels like finally everything comes together,” she said. “We’re down and we’re fighting and every sport cliché is there, and to be able to just breathe and get it done is huge. And to just know that again, all the little things led up to that hit.”
In her ninth year with the Women’s National Team, Luchanski’s success is nothing new, and certainly no surprise to manager Andre Lachance, but with the added time she’s been able to dedicate to the sport, he has seen improvements in her ability to continue playing at her highest level over a long period.
“Luch has done it before,” Lachance said. “She’s been on our team for quite some time and she’s our sparkplug. Every time she’s up at the plate, something will happen. She did a great drag bunt earlier for a base hit, and again she came up with a big hit. She can hit to all fields, so our opponents cannot predict anything. She’s very good. She is a very important part of our team…
“[Now], you see more consistency. You see more resistance also, through the course of the tournament. When you play a tournament of five or six games, before she would sometimes crash in the middle of the tournament, but we see more resistance [now], which is quite important for us because we need Luch healthy for all the games we’re going to play here.”
Being included in the Games has been a dream come true for many of the women representing the country north of the border right on home soil. The most exciting part for Luchanski is the chance to be included in something more than she’s ever been privy to before.
“Being part of Team Canada and not just Baseball Canada,” she said. “It’s been huge to be part of something bigger than just baseball for the first time in our lives. We went to the Jays game and got introduced on the field, people in the streets are cheering for us, [asking] what sport are you?
“To have that team kit recognizable immediately and to be able to be proud that we’re part of Team Canada and to have people – they don’t care what sport you are – just want to cheer for you is really, really special and unique.”
It’s been fantastic to have the Canadian crowd on their side at the games as well, giving many more people the opportunity to understand that women play baseball too, and to see it up close and personal right at home.
“The fans have been great,” Luchanski said. “They’re out cheering. We had a great crowd [Wednesday] and they’ve been really positive, and they get the ‘Go Canada Go’ cheer going.
“And just to have people who maybe aren’t even baseball fans, or don’t even know who we are, they’re coming out to watch us now, instead of just the little family and friends groups. It’s been really special to have the support of the whole Team Canada system.”
While the Games have been a fantastic experience so far, and only look to get better with the women already guaranteed a medal heading into the weekend, Luchanski was hoping that her atypical sport would receive a little bit more attention than it has been so far, hoping for the best as they look toward the championship games.
“Yes and no,” Luchanski said of the Games being everything she thought they would be. “Yes, because the excitement is here, the drive to win is here, and the competition is really good.
“No, because I thought we would maybe be on TV or have a little bit more coverage. It’s opened my eyes to how the Olympics and multi-sport games in general work, and I think that we’re going to get a little more coverage as we get closer to the final. So I’m really excited for that.”