By Meg Ellis
KINGSTON, R.I. - Many athletes dream of representing their country and wearing a national team jersey. For Bri Castro, this dream became a reality when she played in the Pan American Championship for team Colombia over the summer.
Castro, a senior on the softball team, had the opportunity to play for team Colombia because her father was born there. Through this connection, Colombia's head coach Barrios had been keeping tabs on her season at URI. At the beginning of the summer, she received a letter in the mail from the head coach asking her to play on the team.
Most of the correspondence regarding Castro as a player was between her father and the head coach. Initially, they were sending e-mails back and forth to one another. Castro said she was very surprised when coach Barrios reached out to her asking to play on the team, but she jumped at the opportunity.
The team was supposed to spend two weeks together in Colombia prior to the tournament, but Castro and her father ended up meeting the team down in the Dominican Republic, where the tournament was held. Despite their lack of practice, Castro said she was not worried for gameplay.
"The girls were so genuinely welcoming," Castro said. Being received with open arms made it easy for the new player to fit into the lineup. Castro and her father traveled down to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for the championship which took place from August 4-13.
Playing the game
Twenty nations competed in the tournament, the most entries the games have had since 2009. The Pan American Championship is a qualifier for other games, including the 2018 World Championship.
Athletes were housed in a village-style complex, aside from the teams who chose to stay in a hotel. Castro said it was great being in a setting that allowed her to meet the girls from other teams and learn about their culture and the different ways they approached softball. In the village, Castro shared a room with three of her Colombian teammates. None of them spoke any English.
"We had to act out what we wanted to say. I could say some stuff in Spanish and they could say some stuff in English, but at first it was really stressful," Castro said.
The language barrier among roommates was a similar problem amongst the team. Most of the Colombian players spoke Spanish and while her father is fluent, Castro said she only knew how to say "first," "second," and "third." This, coupled with the team's lack of practice, made her unsure of what to expect during gameplay.
While Castro mostly plays second base at URI, she was the catcher for Colombia. When trying to communicate with her pitcher, she would use hand signals. Sometimes, bilingual girls on the team would step in. The players had to learn on the fly until they were able to get a practice in.
"Even during the game, the bilingual girls were calling out what I was saying to the other girls in the field," she recalled.
On their one off-day in the tournament, the players held a practice. During this time, Castro had time to work with the pitchers. The pitching coach for the Colombian team was new to the group, as well and they worked together to learn the pitchers' spins, go-to pitches, and what pitches to stay away from.
"As games went on, we learned pretty quickly," Castro said.
Castro's inability to speak Spanish had advantages at some points during the tournament. As a catcher, she was subjected to heckling from the fans who crowded the stands behind the plate. This was especially true when Colombia played the home team, the Dominican Republic. Castro said that at one point her father had to remove himself from the stadium. To her, it was just yelling.
"It was wild," Castro said. "They would heckle and I was behind the plate, so they were screaming Spanish at me. Luckily, I had no idea what they were saying."
During the 12-day tournament, the team won games against Peru and El Salvador. Castro says they had a heartbreaking lost to Curacao when an error in one of the last innings cost them the game. Despite the result, she reiterated that this was some of the best softball she had ever played.
Off the field
While the games were an obvious highlight of the trip, Castro also emphasized the experience that she gained from playing for a national team in a foreign country.
As the tournament went on and the girls spent more time together, they became much closer. Castro says that she and the girls still keep in touch and the coach has invited her to play with the team in future tournaments. During play, Castro realized that sport can transcend all language barriers. At the end of the day, softball is softball.
One of Castro's favorite experiences from the tournament was playing with some of her idols. She could name off half of Team USA's roster and was proud to say that she got on base against them. The U.S. went on to win the whole tournament.
"Against the U.S., we played Kelly Barnhill who was the 2017 ESPNW Player of the Year and USA Softball Collegiate National Player of the Year," Castro said of the Uinversity of Florida All-American. "I got to face her and although I struck out, I didn't even care."
Many of the girls on the U.S. team play collegiate softball, like Castro. She said that she was able to talk with them after the game and it was funny asking for their autograph, seeing as they were all competing for national teams. All of the players in the tournament were stars to the Spanish-speaking Dominican kids who would rush the field as soon as gameplay was over.
"Kids would come out and say, 'Where's 15? Where's 15?' and ask for our autographs," Castro said. "It was great having kids look for me."
Many of these kids ran around without shoes on. Castro said her father and some of the other parents bought shoes for the fans from local vendors, which made her really happy.
"Being there definitely opened up my eyes to other things," Castro said. "I saw this 10-year old boy who had this glove that was ripped and had a huge hole in the pocket, and it made me realize how lucky I really am."
While the Pan American games are over, Castro's time with the Colombian team is not. As she heads into her last season as a Rhody Ram, she can look forward to future play with this team.
"Although I'm a senior and my career at school is ending, my softball career can continue," she said.