Anissa Urtez stopped in the middle of pacing the base paths Friday night inside Tokyo’s Yokohama Baseball Stadium. She set her eyes on home plate, where Team USA player Amanda Chidester had just stepped into the box and lifted her elbow and bat slightly above her right shoulder.
Urtez’s expression, like that of a lion on the prowl, didn’t soften. No smile came to her lips.
It didn’t matter that her future wife was up to bat. Urtez plays for Team Mexico, Chidester does not. And both had come to win.
“We told each other, ‘We don’t know each other when we’re on the field,’” Urtez, a former standout shortstop for the University of Utah, told OutSports. “It’s game on.”
When their teams met on the field during the third game of round-robin play, Urtez and Chidester likely made history as one of, if not the, first engaged or married couple to compete against each other in a non-equestrian sport in the history of the Olympics.
The Olympic Studies Centre in Switzerland noted it does not keep track of athlete relations. Yet at the request of The Salt Lake Tribune, it uncovered two sets of athletes who were married when they competed against one another for different countries: Anders Dahl for Denmark and Fiona Bigwood of Great Britain, and Patrick Kittel for Sweden and Lyndal Oatley of Australia. All four are equestrians who competed in the 2016 Games. Kittel and Oatley also competed in 2012.
It’s an interesting footnote, but it’s not the prize either is after. They came to Tokyo with the intent to return with a medal, and both will get their chance. Urtez and Mexico, which is making its Olympic debut in the sport, will play Canada for the bronze medal Monday night. Chidester and Team USA will take on host Japan early Tuesday morning.
Both players have had outstanding tournaments so far. And while it’s not the only factor, that success may be partially attributable to the self-confidence they’ve gained from recently opening up about their relationship.
“It’s made me more brave, being with her,” Chidester told OutSports. “She’s brought out a lot more confidence in me with who I am being with her. That’s helped me a lot in taking these next steps in life.”
Letting the world in on their love
Urtez didn’t know she was setting up her own engagement when she started planning a trip to Horseshoe Bend with Chidester, former Utes teammate Hannah Flippen (an alternate for Team USA) and another friend. She and Chidester met playing softball, dated for a couple years and had talked about getting married. Still, after they hiked out to the scenic river bend near the central Utah-Arizona border at sunrise last fall, she was so busy taking in the scenery she had no idea Chidester was on one knee with a ring in her hand in the red dirt behind her.
“She did good,” Urtez told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I had no idea.”
Chidester said she picked that moment to propose because they were in the midst of moving together to Salt Lake City, where they planned to settle for the foreseeable future.
The engagement was the catalyst to them coming out to some family members to whom they had not disclosed their relationship. For Urtez, that was mostly her father’s side of the family, who are Mexican and, in her words, “strict and opinionated.” For Chidester, it was her brothers. Both said they were relieved at the support they got.
“I was just nervous about how they were going to act with me,” Urtez told OutSports. “It’s definitely a relief and I think it’s made my family closer just being open about my personal life. I’m definitely more confident in who I am, just being able to lay it all out that I’m engaged to a woman and I’m happy and that’s all that matters.”
Both women brought that renewed confidence and happiness to Tokyo, where softball is making a temporary return after being cut from the Olympic program in 2008.
It’s obvious in their play.
Making an impact
One of the most versatile players on Team USA, Chidester has been listed, variously, as a shortstop, a right fielder and a designated player. Her natural position, though, is catcher.
But it’s her bat and speed bring the most value to the team. She drove in what would be the winning run against Canada, plated the winning score from second base while running for Haylie McCleney against Mexico and then hit a walk-off home run to lift USA over Australia.
“She’s doing what Chiddy does,” Flippen said. “She’s swinging hard. She’s got big eyes at the plate because she loves hitting, and she’s just being herself.”
Urtez, meanwhile, will go down in the record books for hitting Mexico’s first home run when she smashed a pitch off none other than Japanese legend Yukiko Ueno. Two innings later, after Japan went up 2-1, she hit a game-tying RBI single. Against Italy, she hit another homer, this time bringing in two scores.
At the plate for the tournament, Urtez is 5 for 16 with four RBIs and two runs.
Her defense, though? It’s Mexico’s showstopper.
Against Team USA, the shortstop dove to her right for a catch so dynamic, it should have been on ESPN’s SportsCenter. (She also forced an out on Chidester by catching her pop-up.) If a ball comes her way, an out isn’t far behind. In total, Urtez has been responsible for nine putouts and had a hand in 16 more.
“She’s definitely stepped up to the hype and to the event and she’s owning that,” Flippen said. “This is the Olympics and this is what she has spent so much time and effort and preparation working toward and now it is coming to fruition for her.”
Confidence or country pride?
If there’s an expert on Urtez and Chidester, it’s Flippen. She’s been on the USA national team with Chidester for at least five years and played with the Utes from 2014-17 alongside Urtez. She lives just a few minutes away from them in Sandy. And, she’s a close enough friend that she was asked to take video of the engagement.
Flippen said she has noticed an uptick in play during the Olympics, especially from Urtez, that could be attributed to being more comfortable in her skin and her relationship.
“That definitely plays into all of softball and all of sports or in life, really, because you have to be confident in who you are in order to successfully do something,” she said. “And also, I think it’s important that you feel good about what you’re putting out there.”
Then again, Flippen said, in Urtez’s case, it may just be Mexican pride.
“I never would have thought that she was going to play past college. She likes the game, but she didn’t go above and beyond in college,” Flippen said. “And now Mexico, playing for her native country, has really sparked that fire. I think it’s been close to her heart now that she gets to perform for this country that her family is from. She’s just, like, stepping up her game and really thriving and loving that all of this hard work is finally paying off.”
Urtez, who is half Mexican, has never tried to play for any country other than Mexico. Her resolve to represent the country grew even deeper earlier this year with the death of her paternal grandmother, who brought her family to the United States in search of a better life.
Team Mexico’s entry into the Olympics was a rough one. They started 0-3 while facing the three top-ranked teams in the world in Japan, Canada and the USA. But Urtez and her teammates persevered to win their final two, against Italy and Australia, to earn a rematch against Canada for the bronze medal.
Team USA, meanwhile, made good on its status as a medal favorite by sweeping through the tournament undefeated.
Chidester is guaranteed a medal. Urtez is not. But it’s not going to be an issue, Urtez said.
For one, the partners have had to compete against one another many times before while playing for different countries and different professional teams. And they’ll probably have to do it again.
For another, the hard part’s over. They’re no longer staring at each other across the field. They they can finally be each other’s cheerleader.
And while Urtez acknowledges this is different because it’s the Olympics and because it might be their only chance to win a medal — especially since softball won’t be played in Paris 2024 — they’ve talked about it. Many times. And they realize there actually are more important things than the Olympics and winning.
“We understand that it has nothing to do with our relationship outside of softball,” Urtez said. “This is our career. This is what we’ve worked for. And, you know, it’s nothing we’re going to hold against each other. I’m going to support her no matter what the outcome is, and she’s the same for me.”
When: Bronze-medal game, 10 p.m. MDT Monday
Anissa Urtez and Team Mexico get a rematch with Canada, which won their meeting in the pool-play opener, 4-0.
When: Gold-medal game, 5 a.m. MDT Tuesday
Japan will be looking to avenge its walk-off loss to the Americans in the final game of pool play just a day earlier.
Watch: NBCSports app