Jennie Finch - The Great Golden Hope

W hether they be diehard sports fans or casual observers, ask anyone to tell you what athletes first come to mind when they think of the Olympics and their list will be rife with feminine names - Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Peggy Flemming, Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt, Tai Babalonia, Mary Lou Retton, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Kristi Yamaguchi, Oksana Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, Sonja Henie and Mia Hamm.

Even those with absolutely no interest in sports or the Olympics recognize those names.

Now ask the same folks whose names first come to mind when they think of professional female athletes.

Well, there's Billy Jean King... Martina Navratilova... Chris Evert... Anna Kournikova... Serena and Venus Williams.

Yeah, yeah, but tennis is easy. What about professional woman athletes from other fields.

OK, uh, let's see, there's uh... well, there was Nancy Lopez... and Amy Alcott... ah and oh, hey, remember Babe Didrickson Zaharias!

I think you see where I'm going with this.

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With the exception of the Olympics and professional tennis and golf, most anyone would be hard pressed to rattle off a list of professional female sports stars. A fact that is perhaps all the more ironic when you consider that throughout the United States a huge number of young girls and women participate in community, school and amateur athletics. Still, even as we comfortably settle into the 21st Century, there just doesn't seem to be much of an interest in professional women's sports.

Oh sure, the WNBA does all right. But that has much to do with the fact that the NBA is so willing to support and promote the women's league. And what about soccer? Here's a sport that is today bigger with American kids than even baseball. Legions of young girls are playing organized soccer from coast to coast, but when it comes to turning pro - well, if you want to know why that isn't much of an option, just ask the now-defunct WUSA women's soccer league to take a look at their gross receipts for attendance.

On college campuses throughout the U.S., football and men's basketball tickets are prized possessions that can sell on the secondary market for prices that truly define the word "scalp". But, be honest, have you ever heard of anyone "scalping" a pair of tickets for woman's lacrosse or bragging about having great center court seats for their Alma Mater's women's volleyball games?

Now granted, some women's college basketball teams do draw fair crowds, but for the most part, schools have to rely on a dirty little secret when it comes to filling stands at women's sporting events - giving out free tickets.

That is certainly not the case when it comes to the Olympics where tickets for women's track and field, gymnastics and figure skating are amongst the first to be scooped up and where advertisers want their commercials to run. Women play a major role in the Olympics. This past August, the Summer Games of the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens saw the U.S. send a women's gymnastics team that was as good as any to ever participate. The women's soccer, basketball and softball teams were all major contenders - a concept that could have never been comprehended back in the year 776 BC when the Olympics began in Olympia, Greece.

Back then, long processions paraded from the city of Elis to Olympia in what was a scared march that lasted for three days and honored the King of the Gods - Zeus. While Olympia was the official home of the games, various events were held in over 100 Greek cities and some events even took place in such far away places as Naples and Rome. Women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics back then. In fact, they were not even permitted to be spectators at the Games.

Legend has it that once, when it had been discovered that a woman had disguised herself as a man to enter an Olympic event, the organizers were so appalled they made sure that such an atrocity would never happen again by requiring all attendees to wear the exact same thing as the athletes - nothing.

Feeling shunned, some Greek women decided they were going to take matters into their own hands by creating a feminine version of the Olympics they called the Hera Games in honor of Zeus's wife. That was a huge first step for women's liberation, although, to be honest, the events of the Hera Games were pretty lame, especially when you consider that a foot race of only a couple of miles was the main event.

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Finch's daily workouts include pitching, weight lifting, fielding and hitting.

When the Romans took over Greece in 146 BC, a Roman Emperor named Theodosius put an end to the Olympics completely. He felt that athletes were not participating in the Games for the love of sport, but rather because they saw it as a way to make money. He also felt that the games were far too Pagan for his taste and brought down the curtain on the Games. An earthquake destroyed the Olympic stadium in the AD 500's, and it would be another 1,500 years before Olympic games would be played again.

In 1896, when the Games made a comeback, thanks to Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, there still wasn't a single event for women. That, however, gradually changed and as the years went by; a few women's events did begin to appear. Still it would not be until the 1970s that women ran a race longer than 400 meters and, believe it or not, it was not until 1984 that they were considered capable of taking on the marathon.

As recently as 1972, only 15 percent of all athletes who participated in the Munich Olympics were female. Almost three decades later, in Sydney, male competitors outnumbered females, 68 percent to 32 percent. And this year, as athletes from both genders participated in every sport except boxing, the quest for equity became a bit more of a reality as the Athens Games saw 56 percent of the athletes being male and 44 percent female.

So, with women making so many strides and leaps in the Olympics, and their events so resoundingly capturing the interest of Americans, why is the world of professional woman's sport still so greatly ignored?

Perhaps it is just a matter of the right female athlete to come along. An athlete that will possess incredible skills on the field, a charismatic personally off the field, oh, and drop dead good looks certainly wouldn't hurt.

Perhaps that athlete has come in the form of a golden-haired, six-foot-one-inch goddess who for months leading up to this year's Olympics had been expected to emerge from the Games with a Gold Medal, international recognition and six-figure endorsement deals.

Perhaps that athlete is a well-tanned pitcher with a ponytail who has done just what was expected of her and is raising the interest in woman's softball by virtue of her stunning performance as well as with her stunning looks.

Perhaps that athlete is Olympic Gold Medallist Jennie Finch.

If you hadn't heard of Finch prior to the Games, you most likely now know she's that statuesque blonde who can toss a ball 71 mph. You probably also know she is a member of the 2004 U.S. women's softball team who won their third straight Gold Medal this past August with an unprecedented, and nearly unblemished romp over the competition, topped off with a 5-1 victory over Australia.

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"There's no way a girl could hit this," said Mariners Mike Cameron of Finch's 70 mph riseball.

Jennie Finch was born on September 3, 1980, in La Mirada, California. The daughter of Doug and Bev Finch, she played a variety of sports from a young age, but her focus was always on softball. By the time she was 12, she was already playing competitively at the national level and in 1992 her team, the California Cruisers, finished fourth in the American Softball Association 12-and-under National Championship. The following year, the Cruisers won the ASA Championship and Jennie and her teammates chalked up yet another National title in 1995, in the under-14 category.

Attending La Mirada High School in the mid-1990s, Jennie proved she was no one-trick-ponytailer. While she excelled in softball she wasn't too shabby when it came to volleyball and basketball, earning multiple school letters in all three sports. In 1997, she was captain of her volleyball team, and in 1998, her senior year, she was team captain in volleyball, basketball and softball.

Finch and her softball teammates won their league championship every year she played with them, and was named MVP in 1997 and 1998. She was also named as her school's Female Athlete of the Year and the Athletic Director's Female Athlete of the Year for 1998. Her high school career record was 50 wins, 12 losses, with six perfect games, 13 no-hitters, a 0.15 ERA and 784 strikeouts.

In 1998, Jump magazine named Finch as their number one high school recruit, a distinction that was noticed by the University of Arizona who romanced the communications major into accepting their acceptance. At UA Finch helped her team reach the NCAA Women's College World Series from 1999-2002.

In 2001, she had an incredible year, winning the NCAA World Series and being named its most outstanding player. That year she also won the ASA Major National Championship with the Phoenix Storm. At 32-0, Jennie set an NCAA record for most wins in a season without a defeat. In 2001 and 2002, she won the prestigious Honda Award for the nation's best softball player, and she finished her college career holding the NCAA record for most consecutive wins, with 60.

A member of Team USA since 2001, Finch was signed on as the first female correspondent on the long-running show This Week in Baseball. Her segment, Pitch, Hit, and Run with Jennie Finch, features Jennie demonstrating her skills with the assistance of a different Major League Baseball player every week. The men bravely go up against Finch's 70 mph riseball and the great majority strike out. After facing Finch, Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron declared" "There's no way a girl could hit this!"

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Finch's autographed rookie cards sell for $74.95 through SMR
with proceeds benefiting the Amateur Softball Association.

Along with her standout riseball and being named the World's Hottest Sports Personality by ESPN, Finch's statuesque body and beach-bunny looks could easily make her a standout on the sexy, swingin' nightclub, tabloid and men's magazine scene. But don't count on that happening. Finch is no wild party girl. Prior to the Olympics she turned down lucrative offers to appear in the buff in Playboy and Maxim and is often frustrated by the attention that is placed on her physical attributes. "When you train six to seven hours a day to be the best in your sport, you don't want that to be overlooked," she has said. "I don't train for my looks."

She is a dedicated Christian, engaged to Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Casey Daigle, and eager to start a family. Finch has also been often quoted as saying that sometimes she is downright embarrassed by the attention she receives but is willing to endure it because she believes it helps raise interest in her sport. "Hopefully, they'll go away thinking: 'She's not just a looker - she can throw the ball, too,'" she has said.

While Finch's endorsement income was only around $400,000 going into the Olympics, most marketers say the Gold Medal win will easily push her over a million. "It's not my goal for Jennie Finch to be a household name," she said when she first arrived in Athens. "My goal is to win the Gold Medal."

Even before the Gold Medal win, her image moved merchandise with the speed of her pitch. A pair of her used autographed softball shoes sold on eBay for $1,600 earlier this year and her signed jerseys and posters have outsold her U.S. teammates' by nearly 20 to 1. That is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by USA Softball, who is now raising funds by selling commemorative sets of autographed, Jennie Finch rookie-year softball cards for $74.95.

By stirring all of this attention, it probably comes as no surprise that she has been signed by Octagon Athletes & Personalities whose clients include soccer's Mia Hamm and the Duchess of York. Her agent, Dan Lecy, says there's a balancing act between marketing Finch the athlete and Finch the beauty. "It's a litmus test we deal with every time a new deal comes up," Levy told reporters prior to the Olympics. "There's something unique about elite female athletes who also happen to be beautiful."

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With incredible skills and stunning good looks, Olympic Gold Medallist Jennie Finch may just be the great hope for women's sport.

Unique may be one word for it but the fact of the matter is that her uniqueness translates into cold hard cash for the publishers of newspapers and magazines who have their photographers focus in on her. "Jenny is a bombshell," said Cynthia Wang, the associate bureau chief of PEOPLE magazine who named Finch to their 50 Most Beautiful People list.

That beauty is responsible for her life-size cutouts to disappear from 24 Hour Fitness Centers as fast as they are put on display. It also has a lot to do with Bank of America, Sprint and Bolle Sunglasses signing her on as their spokesperson. And, she's the only ballplayer for whom Mizuno, the upscale sports equipment manufacturer, has ever created a signature line of shoes, bats, balls and gloves. "When I was a kid, I dreamed of using a bat with my own name on it," Finch once admitted adding that, when she was around 12, her father had a bat stripped of the name that appeared on it and replaced with hers. Doug Finch has said that he knew by the time Jennie was 8 that she was going to be something special when it came to sports. He has often told the story of a family trip to Iowa when Jennie, seeing her first snowfall, packed a snowball and then proceeded to toss it out of sight.

Yes, there just may be a harmonious conversion taking place with Finch and women's softball that could make her the true breakout female athlete of our time. By virtue of her golden skill, beauty and medal, she has captured the attention of tongue-wagging males as well as pre-teen girls who adorn their walls with her pictures, join her fan club in droves and wait in line for hours to get her autograph. Couple that with the fact that the United States has dominated the sport over the last several years winning Olympic Gold medals in 1996 and 2000.

USA Softball has also been ranked No.1 in the world for 18 consecutive years and has won ten World Championships. This year's USA team went 53-0 during their Aiming for Athens pre-Olympic tour despite the fact that they suffered a major shock with the unexpected death of Sue Candrea, the wife of USA coach Mike Candrea, who died from complications following a brain aneurysm while on the tour.

Along with Finch, this year's team also includes pitchers Lisa Fernandez and Lori Harrigan, outfielder Laura Berg and outfielder/infielder Leah O'Brien-Amico, all of whom are not only gold medallists, they are also good sports - meaning they harbor no jealously toward Finch's astounding success, media attention, high profile and rising star. "She's helping the sport, how can you be jealous of that? And she deserves the attention," Berg told reporters at the Olympics Media Summit this past June. Amico-O'Brien agreed: "I think Jenny has stepped in right away and become an ambassador for our sport," said Leah. "She does (her) talking on the field." During that press conference Fernandez also lauded her teammate: "She has the whole package," said Lisa.

So, is Finch really the whole package? Is she the great golden hope that has what it takes to bring women's sports to a new level in the United States?

That is certainly what many are counting on. And as much as Finch might try to play down her looks, one only has to look back at a tape of the 2002 ESPY Awards, to see that she is clearly aware of the power of her beauty and knows how to work it fashion-wise. Accompanied by her fiancé, Finch's form-hugging dress, slit provocatively up the side, had head's turning, flash bulbs popping and saw an ESPN poll name her the best-dressed woman of the night. Even when she is away from the spotlight, Finch is known to wear feminine floral print dresses - not exactly a staple in the wardrobes of your typical woman athlete.

Still, it is important to remember that while she does project the image of an All American, sugary sweet girl in flowery dresses she is far more often found in sweats giving her all in highly regimented daily conditioning workouts that include pitching, weight lifting, fielding and hitting. And if there is heavy pressure on her to be the great golden hope to take women's sports up a notch, she doesn't let that pressure do one thing to furrow her tanned brow. "I can do all things in Christ, who gives me strength," she says with a smile.

Finch signed cards encapsulated by PSA are available to benefit USA Softball and the Amateur Softball Association. The organization, founded in 1933, is the National Governing Body of softball in the United States and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. The ASA has become one of the nation's largest sports organizations and now sanctions competition in every state through a network of 91 local associations. The ASA has grown from a few hundred teams in the early days to over 240,000 teams and 40,000 umpires today, representing a membership of more than three million. For more information on the ASA, visit www.asasoftball.com

The Finch File

• Dream Job - Major League Baseball Player

• Pets you have - A Yorkshire Terrier named Prada

• Favorite professional teams - LA Dodgers and LA Lakers

• Number of states you have traveled to - 34

• Favorite Country to play in (besides U.S.) - Nothing compares to the U.S.

• Favorite Food - Shrimp Cocktail and Stuffed Crabs

• Advice to young athletes - "Never limit yourself, never be satisfied, and smile- it's free!"

• Pre-Game ritual - 27 minute warm-up

• Favorite TV Show - Sportscenter

• Three people you would love to have dinner with - Oprah, Michael Jordan, Jesus

• Hobbies - Volleyball and Shopping

• Personal website - www.jenniefinch27.net

• Favorite Olympic Sport (besides softball) - Gymnastics

• Place you dream to vacation - Europe