“I could do this all day.”
With a sigh of satisfaction, facilitator Danielle O’Toole has said that over and over on the first day of AUX practices.
“This” is softball at the cerebral level O’Toole engages with the game. The nitty gritty. Minor adjustments most eyes would never catch.
She’s in the bullpen with the captain she is paired with for the week, Dejah Mulipola, and star rookie pitcher from UCLA, Megan Faraimo.
O’Toole watches behind her shades and while she looks stoic, the gears are turning.
“Manipulating is the word I like to use, but it’s not in a negative connotation,” O’Toole explained. “How can I kinetically get you to manipulate your body into doing something that’s beneficial for your pitch? That is what is super exciting to me, seeing somebody be a sponge, take it in, process it.”
Faraimo was taking it in from the Olympic pitcher. They talked about the break of curve balls, how to attack the batters, and how deep Faraimo holds the ball in her palm. The rookie excitedly told O’Toole about a pitch she had been thinking about inventing that she didn’t have in her arsenal yet but seemed unsure.
O’Toole gave immediate assurance that no ideas are foolish. She told her they could work on it.
It may feel unnatural for fans to watch an Athletes Unlimited Softball game and not see Danielle O’Toole in the circle. She’s been a pitcher since the league’s inception and became the face of the AUX season as the inaugural champion.
But O’Toole could not be more comfortable in her role as a facilitator this season. She’s been at Cal-State Fullerton for the last few years on the coaching staff and her knack for development started in college. She took freshmen under her wing and helped them along in the transition.
In the National Pro Fastpitch league, she noticed teammate Kelly Barnhill didn’t have a curve ball.
Her thinking? “Let’s try it.”
Throughout her AU career on pitching staffs, she’s been a sage of advice to newcomers in the league. She tells all first-year hurlers two things: expand the strike zone and don’t be afraid to throw a ball.
But being a pitcher her entire life, there are aspects of the team she’s missed out on in the past.
“I’ve never been able to pay attention to the cage ’cause I’m usually throwing or I’m shagging and now I can really see what everyone’s talking about or what we’re working on … or some drills I can pick up.”
That mentality of being a sponge is one O’Toole applies to herself too. She surprised the other facilitators when she stepped up to hit fungo in practice. It’s something she’s been working on coaching at the college level because for her, if there’s a way she can help her team she wants to know how to do it.
“Whatever a captain doesn’t want to do, I’ll do it.”
Out of the dark
O’Toole wanted to retire for quite some time but “not like that.”
In the 2021 AU season, she struggled. She finished in 58th place out of 61 athletes, acquired no MVP points, earned negative stat points, and was drafted near the bottom each week. O’Toole couldn’t let herself be done yet.
“I’ve worked way too hard my entire life to be able to just let it go because I was mentally not okay. Well, I’m gonna make myself okay, I’m gonna figure it out,” O’Toole said when she reflected after that season.
She worked to get her arm back in shape, rehabbing almost every day. She tore her labrum right before the Olympics and used Cortisone shots to get her through competing in Tokyo and in Rosemont. Not only was O’Toole not physically at her best but mentally, things were dark. She’d hit a low many Olympians have spoken about after competing. A “post-Olympic depression” that leaves athletes questioning who they are and what their purpose is after reaching the peak of their lifelong hopes and dreams.
“It’s crazy how much that mental part takes over when you’re just suffocating in your own body. And when I finally got out of it [I] realized like, I am not gonna go out that way.”
The inaugural season of AUX presented a mentality shift for O’Toole. She’s always been a humble player throughout her career, never one to brag, and prefers to do her job and then lay low.
But her light from within had been relit, and boy, was it bright now. It shined in her smile in postgame interviews, from the dugout cheering on her teammates, and particularly in the circle.
In nine appearances, O’Toole logged 18 strikeouts and held opponents to a .206 average. She finished with a league-best 1.69 ERA.
She was voted an MVP by her peers four times, earned 266 stat points, and couldn’t be drafted at the end — she was the captain making the picks in Series 3 and led her team to a 3-1 record that secured her championship finish.
O’Toole has felt the lows of the bottom of the AU rankings when she “could not throw a decent pitch to save my life.” But she also knows what it takes to climb to the top and win. No one is more relatable to the athlete experience in this unique league than her.
Your athletic performance does not equal your self worth.
Let me repeat that 🔁
Your athletic performance, DOES NOT equal your self worth. You are more than your sport, you are more than your position. You are valued. You are important. And you are loved no matter what.
— Danielle O’Toole Trejo OLY (@Oh_tooly3) March 14, 2022
Thriving in the details
Looking back a full year later, she could not be more proud of herself. And she feels at peace with being done playing.
Now, she has her sights on new goals. One she set for herself as a facilitator is learning how to build a lineup. It’s a craft she’s always admired about her legendary head coach from Arizona, Mike Candrea. She sees how Cal-State Fullerton’s Kelly Ford can piece together a hitting order that creates a domino effect of results.
Another softball intricacy O’Toole wants to examine, tweak, and perfect.
In Series 1, she took on coaching third, something she hadn’t done before. It was a challenge she had some anticipation for.
During batting practice, she asked Mulipola what their plan as a team would be. Did they want to play it safe or be risk-takers with base running? Mulipola mulled it over – no one had ever asked her that before as a captain.
It’s all in the details for O’Toole, as it has been throughout her playing career. It paid off as a facilitator. Twice Team Mulipola was aggressive on the base path, with O’Toole pushing for an extra bag or sending a runner home. They scored off of it multiple times.
“I’m an auxiliary. I’m meant to help. If you need me, I’m here.”
The role may look different, but O’Toole is still doing the same things she did while in uniform. Picking apart a hitter, soaking in every lesson she can learn on the diamond, and talking pitching sequences. She’s developing a new craft, one that’s kinder to her arm.
In fact, the only thing O’Toole misses about being an athlete is the player group chat. She laughed talking about the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) from no longer being in one.
So if someone could secretly add her, that would be great.
Savanna Collins is the Digital Media Reporter at Athletes Unlimited. You can follow her on Twitter @savannaecollins.
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© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2022 / Credit: Jade Hewitt
Danielle O'Toole opens up about mental health journey post-Olympics
Danielle O'Toole © Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2022 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
Meet the 2023 AUX Softball Series 2 Teams
© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
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