“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” —Nelson Mandela.
It may have looked to many like little more than an improbable idea, but Joni Frei and her team never doubted the day would come.
Next month at Softball City in Surrey, with the Kelowna-raised Frei serving as head coach, Uganda will make its inaugural appearance at the WBSC XV Women’s World Softball Championship.
With help from many people throughout the provincial and international softball communities, Frei and her team have spent much of the last two years working to ensure the third-world African nation would field a team for this summer’s international championship.
Through the sales of handmade beaded necklaces and bracelets made by young women in the Kampala, Uganda slums, the support of Steve Nash Fitness and other fundraising initiatives, $45,000 was raised to finance the trip.
The team will feature 14 players and two coaches from the east African country. Frei has added one Austrian and three Canadian assistants to her coaching staff, as well as two young developing leaders in a support role.
Frei believes the journey to the world championship in Canada will mark a positive, life-changing experience for the women.
“These girls have major challenges where they come from, they have very little,” said Frei, a former NCAA player and coach and current Director of Coaching for Softball BC. “I am certain this initiative will serve to inspire and empower not only these women but every person who comes in touch with our story beyond the white lines. There are few greater mechanisms to facilitate unity than sport.”
In addition to playing softball in a world-class environment, Frei said the women will learn life skills away from the diamond by attending professional workshops. “This will help them gain valuable skills they can take home,” she added.
Frei has returned to Uganda this week for final preparations leading into the championship. This is her third trip to Uganda since January 2015. It began for her in the summer of 2014 when two Ugandan female coaches, through the Pearl of Africa Series, came to Canada to learn technical, tactical and administrative components of the game.
“In fact, some of the local Okanagan coaches may even recall attending an NCCP workshop with the Ugandan coaches in Kelowna,” Frei said.
During Frei’s second trip to Uganda, the World Baseball Softball Confederation (formerly known as the ISF) increased the number of countries allowed to compete at the World Championship and that opened the door for Uganda to build their national team program.
With much of the legwork now behind them, Frei is excited that their two-year initiative, what she refers to as ‘The Uganda Project’, is becoming reality.
“Anything else was not an option,” Frei said matter-of-factly. “Our team mantra is ‘Watch This’. Not because we’re a spectacle on the field, but because we are game for any challenge created from doubt and disbelief.
“Sport is one of humanities’ greatest equalizers,” she continued. “It does not distinguish among race, religion or economic status.”
Frei will arrive back in Canada July 10 with the team and will see their first action with a pair of exhibition games against Team B.C. and the Coquitlam Classics, an association whom Frei credits with providing invaluable support throughout the process.
The Women’s World Softball Championship begins July 15 with Uganda playing Ireland in its opening game.
Canada and Great Britain are also in Uganda’s pool at the 31-nation tournament. Japan and the U.S., two perennial powerhouses, will also compete in the championship.