LIKE any elite athlete, Greenwell Point's Tim Atherton has had to sacrifice a great deal to get to where he is today.
From missed special occasions to endless time on the road, the Berkeley Eagles pitcher has experienced it all.
But he is now just weeks away from validating all that, as his Australian men's baseball team are on the verge of qualifying for the Olympic Games.
"Making it to the Olympics would 100 per cent validate everything I've done in my career up to this point," Atherton said.
"I've travelled the world 20 times over and had unbelievable experiences but booking a ticket to Tokyo would justify all the pain and sacrifices my family and I have gone through over the past 20 years.
"I made it to the minor league in the United States but missed out on going into the majors because of injury.
"As disappointing as that was all those years ago, as Australians, we are raised to idolise Olympians and I have always put that above anything else.
"The Olympics originated as a way for the Greeks to show their great physical attributes and in my eyes, there's nothing bigger than the games - other tournaments such as world cups come around every year or two but not the Olympics, which make them even more special.
"If we do qualify, it will easily be the greatest achievement of my career."
If not for COVID-19, the Tokyo games would have been and gone already.
But instead of dwelling on what could have been, the 31-year-old used the extra time to prepare himself for this opportunity.
"There's no doubt, last year had its challenges but I just took them all in my stride," he said.
"Having grown up in the country [Kempsey], I'm used to training by myself, so the motivation to stay in shape wasn't an issue for me.
"Thankfully, we were able to get in a solid half-season with Berkeley in the Illawarra Baseball League before the ABL [Australian Baseball League] started."
Even though it marked his ninth season in the ABL, nothing could have prepared Atherton for what was going to unfold during the 2020-21 campaign with his Brisbane Bandits.
"The ABL was crazy," he said.
"I had to move Elle and my three boys to Canberra to avoid them being lockdowned.
"I then flew to Brisbane for two days before heading to Adelaide - it felt like we were just chasing the COVID-free cities.
"It honestly felt like we were part of a circus for those six weeks.
"But kudos to the ABL, the league and owners for rolling with the punches and getting the season in, because everyone knew how important it was for our Olympic preparation."
Since the ABL's completion in February, Atherton has based himself on the South Coast, playing once again with his beloved Eagles but also training with fellow Australian players Steve Kent (Eagles) and Trent D'Antonio (Cardinals) - to prepare him for the week-long national camp in Queensland from June 30.
"The camp will be great, especially for the new faces and younger guys, as well as the batsmen, as it'll give them a week of facing the top pitches out country has to offer," Atherton said.
"It also allows us to build our camaraderie because we all have the same goal and are experiencing the same sacrifices to try and become Olympians.
"In this country, we don't usually get a chance to have 30 guys working together in a professional setting too often, so it'll be special."
Following the camp, Atherton's squad will head to Mexico (after a surge in COVID-19 cases in Taiwan forced the event to be moved) on July 7 for the last chance qualification tournament, where they are pitted in the diamond against the host nation (who Australia has never defeated), the Netherlands and the second and third place finishers from the Americas series.
All teams will play each other once, with the team with the best record at the end of the tournament securing the final spot at Tokyo.
"We are sending the strongest possible side we can to Mexico, as we don't have access to our US-based players - but all the other sides except the hosts are in the same boat," he said.
"I firmly believe any team keep beat any opponent in a tournament like this because it's all about who's better on the day.
"It's not like the major leagues when there are more than 100 games, it's about us beating who's in front of us each time we step onto the diamond.
"A big part of that is our hitters getting runs.
"For example, when we beat the US a couple of years ago, our batters got us two runs, so us pitchers knew what we had to do with the ball.
"We have the pitchers to compete with any team in the world and if our batters step up like I know they're capable of, anything is possible."
The last time the Southern Thunder competed at the Olympic Games was in 2004 when the side claimed the silver medal in Athens.
A big part of that medal was now head coach Dave Nilsson, who was the catcher during that Olympics.
"Dave always speaks about how his team lost the gold medal, not won the silver and that's the mentality the whole squad has going into this," Atherton said.
"In our group text called 'Olympic Rings', we are all adamant we're not making up the numbers, firstly in Mexico, and then at Tokyo, if we qualify.
"Obviously it will suck that my family can't be over there to experience it with me but it'll be so cool for my boys to say their dad was an Olympian.
"Making the Olympics would be my Mount Everest but winning a medal would even top that - it would be remarkable.
"It's going to be a really exciting few weeks and I can't wait."
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