Rachel Garcia's Olympic dream was postponed, but 2021 could be a year to remember for the U.S. Olympian and two-time national college Player of the Year at UCLA.
UCLA, Arizona and USA Softball jointly announced Thursday that Garcia, UCLA teammate Bubba Nickles and Arizona's Dejah Mulipola will play for both their college teams in 2021 and Team USA in the rescheduled Olympics. The only collegians on the current Olympic roster, all three players sat out the most recent college season in order to train with the national team.
USA Softball announced earlier Thursday that it would keep the same roster and coaching staff for the Olympics that are now scheduled for next year.
A two-way threat as a pitcher and hitter, Garcia was the USA Softball Player of the Year, awarded to the best college player, in both 2018 and 2019. She and Nickles led UCLA to an NCAA championship in 2019, the record 12th in the history of a program that produced former Olympic stars like Lisa Fernandez, Dot Richardson and Natasha Watley.
Garcia went 29-1 with a 1.14 ERA as a pitcher for UCLA in 2019, while hitting .343 with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs in 61 games. She was also part of the U.S. team that won the 2018 WBSC World Championship, thereby qualifying for the Olympics and softball's return for the first time since 2008.
"I am beyond proud and blessed to be able to compete with my Bruins next season and still represent our great country in Tokyo 2021," Garcia said in a statement.
An outfielder, Nickles hit .390 with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs as a junior in UCLA's title season. A catcher, Mulipola hit 23 home runs as a junior a Arizona in 2019.
"It's such a blessing that I not only get to return this upcoming year to play my last season with some of my best friends, but also that I get to train for the 2021 Olympics in addition to it all," Mulipola said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to being back in Tucson and I'm excited for my senior year with the best coaching staff and fans in the world."
All three players made the 15-player Olympic roster through a tryout last October and elected to sit out the college season that was subsequently cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
All three have one remaining season of eligibility.
A UCLA spokesperson told ESPN that the school believed Garcia, who also sat out the 2016 season as a medical redshirt, and Nickles, would have been eligible to play in 2022 had they opted to sit out the 2021 college season and again train exclusively with the Olympic team.
An athlete normally has five years from the start of full-time enrollment to complete four seasons of eligibility. Among the exceptions to the five-year clock outlined in NCAA rules is the athletics activity waiver, which effectively pauses eligibility for someone competing in the Olympics or any of a number of international athletic events.
Although the NCAA recently extended member schools the option of extending eligibility for spring-sport athletes as a result of the pandemic, it is unclear if an athlete would as a result be able to use the athletics activity waiver twice.
"NCAA leadership and membership committees are identifying and working through the considerable implications related to the COVID-19 pandemic," NCAA associate director of communications Michelle Hosick told ESPN. "While some decisions can be made quickly, others may take time to reach conclusion. As details become available, we will share with our membership and the public. This issue has been identified and will be considered by Division I leaders."
Even without Garcia and Nickles this season, UCLA was ranked No. 1 when the college season abruptly ended.
USA Softball has not yet announced its plans for any pre-Olympic tour in 2021 similar to the one that was also cut short this year by the pandemic.