By William Plummer
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

DONNING LATEX GLOVES AND A STERILE gown, Dorothy Richardson joins Dr. George McCluskey in the operating room of the Hughston Sports Medicine Hospital in Columbus, Ga. For 30 minutes the third-year resident in orthopedic surgery holds retractors and cuts sutures as McCluskey performs a ligament reconstruction on a young man’s shoulder. “She’s very well trained,” says McCluskey afterward. “She also saw what can happen to a shoulder if she doesn’t warm up properly before she throws.”

A useful object lesson for Richardson, 34, who, out of the OR, is the starting shortstop for the U.S. women’s softball team—and arguably the best female shortstop in the world. “I feel that God has given me this talent with my hands,” says Richardson, who has been granted a year’s absence from her residency at the University of Southern California Medical Center for the debut of women’s fast-pitch softball at the 1996 Olympic Games. “And I feel that athletics have prepared me to be a surgeon.” As an example, Richardson draws a parallel between emergency room duty and fielding her position: Both require visualizing possibilities and making quick decisions. “Athletics teaches you to zoom your focus on what needs to be done,” she says. “It also prepares you for the fact that you may fail.”

Not that Richardson, a mainstay on the national team since 1979, has experienced much failure. In fact her mother, Joyce, 63, says “the whole family always knew that Dorothy was going to turn out to be something. We just didn’t know what.”

Richardson, whose father, Ken, 64, was an Air Force mechanic, spent much of her early life on military bases in the U.S. and abroad. Joyce says the fourth of her five children was always jet-propelled: “Dorothy never walked as a baby. She ran.”

Richardson poured her energies into sports. “I played catch with my brothers,” she says. “But my parents said I shouldn’t pitch to other boys because their parents got upset when I struck them out.” (Later, at UCLA, she made a date furious by tying him at golf the first time she ever played.)

At 10, Richardson played third base for the Union Park Jets, a local women’s softball team with an average age of 26, and made the league all-star squad. At 13, she graduated to the Orlando Rebels, becoming the youngest player ever in the national Women’s Major Fast-Pitch League. “I was so happy,” she says, “that when I said my prayers at night, I’d say, ‘If I should die before I wake, please God, let there be a softball field in Heaven.’ ”

In 1980, at Western Illinois University, Richardson posted the highest average among college women, batting .480. The next year she transferred to UCLA, where she became a three-time all-American. She was also premed. “I would frequently be playing a doubleheader,” she says, “and then sprinting to the opposite end of the campus for my chem lab. I’d still be in my uniform, dirty from sliding.”

Even as a student at University of Louisville Medical School, Richardson kept up with her softball. In the fall of her fourth year, she had a regular Friday afternoon conference that kept her in the hospital until 5—which was a problem because her flight to play Friday night ball with the champion Raybestos Brakettes in Stratford, Conn., left at 5:30. “I wanted to run so badly,” she recalls of her dash to the plane, “but I couldn’t, because if people see doctors run, they get really nervous.” Only aboard the plane would Richardson get the chance to change out of her hospital scrubs.

Richardson, who had long dreamed about the Olympics, learned that soft-ball was going to be included in the ’96 Games just as she was interviewing for her residency in orthopedic surgery. She told the people at USC of her Olympic hope, but said she would forgo the Games if they said no. In May 1993 she found this message on her answering machine from USC’s residency director Dr. Francis Schiller: “Welcome to the Olympics of Orthopedics.”

After the Games—in which the U.S. softball team is heavily favored—Richardson will return to medicine. Eventually, Richardson, who says her schedule leaves her little time for “major dating,” hopes to preside over a sort of medical-sports complex. “It would be a huge octagon with three floors,” she says. “My office would look out on the center of the octagon, which would be a huge softball field. It’s still a dream, but, face it, the Olympics were a dream too.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Columbus