LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For most, Beijing, China, and Louisville, Ky. — separated by nearly 7,000 miles — are as dissimilar as a scalding cup of hot tea and a frosty mint julep.
But for Nathalie Timmermans, they are no different.
The senior catcher on Central Oklahoma’s softball team ventured to Beijing in 2008, striving for a gold medal in the Olympic Games as a member of the Netherlands’ national softball team. This week, she finds herself in Louisville, battling alongside her teammates for a Division II national championship. Though the games are contested in jarringly different corners of the globe, she said the time she spends on the field in Louisville feels no different than it did in Beijing.
“If you look at the Olympics and this, it’s the same pressure,” she said. “You want to win. It’s the same feeling. I take this as seriously as I do when I play with the national team. This is as big for me as it was in the Olympics.”
Timmermans’ journey to Beijing began 10 years before the Olympic cauldron was lit. In Holland, where she says few have even heard of softball, she grew up a short walk from a field in her hometown of Oldenzaal. A curious child, she observed the strange sport until, at age eight, a coach asked her to play.
“I didn’t even know the game,” Timmermans said. “But I did it, and I couldn’t stop. I’ve played it every day since then.”
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By 13, she was on the nation’s junior national team. At 18, she got the surprise call that she’d be part of the 15-member squad that Holland would send to Beijing. During the opening ceremony, she was part of the parade of 204 nations — sandwiched between Mozambique and Netherlands-Antilles — that included more than 10,000 athletes. She stared a stage — gazed upon by more than a billion people worldwide — with Olympic luminaries like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Though the Netherlands mustered a mere win in seven games, Timmermans cites the experience as the most memorable of her career.
“[The opening ceremony] was the best thing,” she said. “Every time I see anything on TV about [the 2012 London Olympics], I wish I could do it again this year.”
But she can’t. Softball was voted out of the Games by the International Olympic Committee. Still, she’s remained an active participant on Holland’s national team. Any disappointment that lingered from a lackluster performance in Beijing was erased in 2009 when the Netherlands halted Italy’s 18-year reign as European champion. Timmermans helped her nation defend its title in 2011 (the European softball championship is contested every two years), slapping a two-run home run against Spain. That year’s semifinal win against Italy marked her 50th international game.
She’s experiencing even greater success on the collegiate level. She leads the nation’s second-ranked team in hits, home runs, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Her marks in each — notably her 22 home runs and 72 runs scored — are among the best in all of Division II and she boasts a Ruthian 1.463 OPS.
“She knows the strike zone,” Central Oklahoma head coach Genny Stidham said. “She can hit the long ball, but she can knock a third-baseman’s head off too.”
This year was Timmermans’ first season at Central Oklahoma. She jumped there after one year at an Illinois junior college and two seasons at nearby Oklahoma City University because her participation with the national team would have cost her a year of eligibility unless she transferred. Though teams nationwide would’ve been interested, she wanted to remain in Oklahoma to stay near friends during her final year of collegiate softball. Stidham says Timmermans’ new teammates were initially wary of the five-foot-eleven-inch transfer, but the Olympian’s drive soon rubbed off on them and propelled them to a 44-7 season entering this week’s NCAA Championships. Her teammates have since affectionately dubbed her “The Beast.”
“At first I think they were very intimidated, but they saw that she worked hard and they jumped on the bandwagon,” Stidham said. “It’s not a team that I’ve had to push to do anything. They’ve been self-motivated and she has a lot to do with that.”
That work ethic was born on a lonely softball field in Holland. She’s taken it with her as she traverses the globe, smashing home runs and line drives at every stop. She hopes to once again compete on the Netherlands’ national team as they prepare to defend their title in the 2013 European championships and then to return to Central Oklahoma to work as a graduate assistant.
“When I was younger, even when my coach would cancel practice, I would go out there in the rain,” she said “I could not miss one day. I guess that always helped me. I workout everyday [outside of] softball. I feel if you workout hard you’re going to make it.”
Timmermans made it.
She made it to Beijing; she made it to Louisville.