After Pete Orr’s heroics helped Canada capture the gold medal in men’s baseball at the 2015 Pan Am Games, the women of the Canadian contingent are certainly hoping to emulate such efforts, which would result in an unprecedented double gold. It would come as no surprise if such an outcome resulted in Vanessa Riopel pitching on the mound.
A highly accomplished pitcher who wants the ball in high pressure situations, a possible ace in the hole may lie in elite catcher Stephanie Savoie. Having both grown up in Quebec, the two are longtime teammates on the provincial team. Such a rapport allows them a remarkable advantage against the four other competing nations in the inaugural women’s baseball tournament at the Pan Am Games.
Considered one of the aces of the pitching staff by Team Canada manager Andre Lachance, it places Vanessa Riopel in the position of role model for the younger players on the roster. As women’s baseball in Canada is poised to grow in the similar fashion that women’s hockey expanded after the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Riopel’s road to the national team is one of its most heart-warming stories.
Although the language barrier was the most difficult aspect of adjusting to national team play (it also led to struggles during her first few months of play in Australia), the most admirable quality of Riopel goes beyond the determination to learn English. Having spent part of her infancy in a cast due to a club foot, her ability to compete in an able-bodied sport such as baseball has shown the potential of sport as a way to build confidence and self-esteem.
Despite the fact that her left foot is close to two sizes smaller than the right, it has not prevented her from achieving her sporting dreams. Although the club foot may result in being perceived as disabled, Riopel is truly able to empower, proving that obstacles can be overcome. Experiencing no discomfort on the mound, the affected foot may experience slight fatigue. A key source of inspiration for Riopel is the fact that American soccer legend Mia Hamm was also born with a club foot. Riopel hopes to emulate Hamm’s championship success by helping Canada capture its first gold medal in international women’s baseball.
As the 2015 edition of the Pan Am Games marks the first time that women’s baseball is being contested in a major multi-national tournament, Riopel’s brush with sporting history is one that may serve as the defining moment of her career. Should Riopel and her teammates capture the first-ever gold medal, it may result in becoming “Canada’s sweethearts”, akin to what Canada’s women’s soccer team experienced in the aftermath of the London 2012 Summer Games with its emotional bronze medal performance.
Like so many of her teammates, she is forced to play in a men’s league in order to prepare for international play. Despite the frustration that comes with the fact that a professional league for women is non-existent, the access to competing with male opponents provides a faster pace of play, sharpening Riopel’s skills.
Friendly yet elegeant, Riopel’s sporting superstition is the need to always travel with a curling iron as pristine hair is a must when she takes to the mound. Along with triathletes Paula Findlay and Kyle Jones, Riopel was one of three Canadian athletes sponsored by Maytag heading into the Pan Am Games. Such an endorsement is likely the first of many to come, as Riopel is poised to become a rising star in the Canadian sporting conversation.
Employing bravura, she is eager to pitch against top ranked opponents such as Japan and the United States. Very analytical, Riopel acknowledges that different approaches to the game are required against such opponents. Of note, Japan prefers to bunt and play a more defensive minded game whereas the rival United States utilizes more of a power game.
Adding to the essence of Riopel’s pitching performances is the presence of a familiar face (and friend) behind the plate. Teammates for a decade, catcher Stephane Savoie is the perfect person behind the plate. As the relationship between pitcher and catcher may be one of the most important in sport, their rapport leads to a winning combination.
Riopel and Stephanie Savoie are definitely the two faces of baseball for women in Quebec. Their friendship and success is akin to Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette in women’s hockey. Each an ambassador for their respective sport, they are destined to become French-Canadian female sports immortals.
Having graduated from Sherbrooke University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, she has ambitions to eventually teach physical and health education. Should Riopel achieve her dreams of becoming an educator, it would also make her an ideal candidate to become a baseball coach. As former teammate Samantha Magalas is part of the Canadian coaching staff for the national women’s team, a remarkable individual such as Riopel, compassionate yet courageous, could build on her storied legacy, while expanding the role of women in coaching.