Hitting a walk-off homer is the dream of every softball player and baseball player, and it came true for Gano on a June Saturday night in San Diego.
Gano already had hit one home run that night for Team Fischer against Team Zerkle in a game that was tied after seven innings. Both teams scored runs apiece in the eighth and ninth innings, and Team Zerkle forged ahead by a run in the top of the 10th. After Team Fischer scored a run to tie it in the bottom half, Gano ended it with a drive that disappeared into the southern California night for a 10-6 victory.
“It was so fun,” she said in Rosemont while getting ready for Season 3 of Athletes Unlimited softball. “The team that I was on was just so fun, my teammates. We were kind of struggling to get a win and to get inning wins. It was really cool, especially because the first two weekends were a little bit of a struggle for me personally at the plate. I was trying to get into a routine. I kept saying, ‘Trust the process. Trust the process.’ I put the work in. So that game was really fun. I got two home runs. It was like it all paid off. I was just so happy that we could get some inning wins and a win under our belts.”
The best part may have been the welcoming committee that greeted her at home plate.
“Oh, I couldn’t wait to get in there and celebrate because it was such a long game and we had really, really close games and we just weren’t coming out on top,” she said. “So it was really, really cool. I think our team camaraderie was just amazing. When you have a really fun team, it makes it that much more special.”
Gano is hoping her walk-off heroics provide a grand segue into Season 3 of AU softball in Rosemont, but she’s doing so with a well-grounded sense of perspective. The former University of Washington player made her AU debut last year for Season 2. She had hoped to be among the early signees for the inaugural softball season in 2020, but a bigger blessing came along: her son Gregory.
Athletes Unlimited will be a family affair this season, with Gregory and Gano’s husband, pro basketball player Abdul Gaddy, joining her in Rosemont.
“I have a different mindset coming in this year,” Courtney said. “Last year, I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do it after having a baby. I was really proud to be a mom and come and play. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that AU gave us. I kind of came in with not very high expectations. I didn’t have much time or the resources to train during the off-season because my husband was overseas during my training time during my off-season. It was maybe five times I got to go hit and bring Gregory with me. It wasn’t very much.
“This year we decided that we were going to have somebody help us, and I’ll get to go do my training. I trained at a place called Driveline in Washington (State). It’s pretty big time in baseball. I was going six days a week. I just got after it. So my expectations and my mindset coming in are a lot different. I’m just really ready to compete, and I’m not doing it just to say I’m here. So I’m feeling a lot better, just physically, mentally and my husband’s here, too, so he can help with Gregory. I’m really able to focus now.”
Gregory has become quite the star among Gano’s teammates, who play the role of doting aunts. Gano calls her son an “epilepsy warrior.”
“He has a rare genetic mutation; it’s something called pyridoxine-dependent epilepsy, PDE,” she said. “It’s very rare. At one point we thought one in a million, but I think it’s 1 in 600,000. It took a few days to figure out. It was very traumatic, his first few days of life. He was having seizures. He stopped breathing, and I had to give him CPR at three days old.
“There was a lot that went down. We went to Seattle Children’s (Hospital), and they are incredible. They helped us so much. They figured out what it was very quickly. He’s been stable ever since. He takes medication five times a day. He’s on a special diet. This is a lifelong thing that we’ve planned for. We have the support we need, and he’s been thriving. There’s things that come with it. There are some developmental delays that can be expected, but we’ve had all the support we need. He goes to physical therapy. He has his neurologist. We have all those resources, and we’re really blessed.
“But it just makes him that much more special. If you meet him … he’s so special.”
The love has become a two-way street, with Gregory giving as much as he is getting.
“Last year was really special in that aspect, the support,” Gano said. “As the mother of a 1-year-old, I was still getting the hang of things, still breastfeeding, still like, ‘I’m just trying to keep my head above water, really.’ To be here in this support system was incredible for me because I really needed that. It’s hard to be somewhat alone in that first year of motherhood. I really needed it. It was uplifting.
“Now it’s cool because he’s starting to learn the names of the girls. He knows Abby (Ramirez) and Haylie Wagner. He was saying, ‘Abbs, Abbs,’ for Abby. He gets to have his second birthday here. Hopefully we have a little celebration for him here with all the girls. It’s amazing.”
Athletes Unlimited’s policies regarding pregnancy and motherhood helped to attract Gano to the league in the first place more than two years ago.
“I was really interested in the concept,” she said. “I got a call from (softball player) Gwen Svekis. I think they had four people signed at that point. It was right at the beginning of it. I was planning on being one of the first 10 to sign. That week was when I found out I was pregnant with Gregory. I looked at that as a motivation, at the timing. I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could have played,’ but there was nothing that was going to trump having Gregory. I was really excited. I got to watch that first season with Gregory in my arms, and I was like, ‘You know what? We’re going to be out there.’
“I love the idea of things. I love the investment that they’re making for AU. They do it the right way. It’s something different. The pregnancy policy is so different because I could never have even thought about having a baby (previously). I would not have been possible. They take care of our childcare. They make it possible.”
Gano said she and her husband would love to serve and give back to their sports and communities after their playing days are over. Short term, she will look forward to playing softball without putting pressure on herself but with a renewed sense of self confidence after AUX.
“I think (goals) have changed a little bit since AUX because at AUX, I really came in just expecting to reap the benefits of the work that I put in,” she said. “I really am just wanting to enjoy the moment here, be patient with myself and give myself a little bit more grace. I have to understand that the game is very hard. I can’t expect to be successful all the time.
“It’s more so just enjoying. I’m at my best when I’m enjoying it and embracing my teammates and just living in the moment, at-bat to at-bat, those kinds of things.”
That’s the same advice she gives to young women and girls coming up in softball.
“We play a very, very hard sport,” she said. “And we really need to give ourselves grace. We can’t strive for perfection in this sport. Just take it as it is and trust the process of whatever’s happening, you’ve got to just trust it and know that there’s a plan. Just keep going.
“There were a lot of times when I thought I was done. I’m just solely talking about the sport right now. I thought I was done a lot of times. I’ve had four knee surgeries. I just kind of trusted it and kept going. If it’s meant to be, it’s going to be. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities and doors open whether that’s softball or outside of softball. Be nice to yourself.”
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