Team USA Softball Players Say It Was a 'Dream Brought Back to Life' When Sport Returned to Olympics

Dejah Mulipola and Haylie McCleney tell PEOPLE how they felt when they learned softball would once again be an Olympic sport for the first time since 2008

Dejah Mulipola & Haylie McCleney
Dejah Mulipola (left) and Haylie McCleney. Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP/Shutterstock; Sue Ogrocki/AP/Shutterstock

A dream on the diamond.

Team USA softball players Haylie McCleney and Dejah Mulipola tell PEOPLE that they were overjoyed when they learned that softball would return as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo Games, the first time it's been included since 2008.

"I've been on the team for the last seven years and when we got the news that softball had been voted back into the Olympic Games it was really just like a dream come true scenario for a lot of us," McCleney, 26, says during the Team USA Tokyo Olympics Media Summit on Thursday, "because after it was voted out after the 2008 Games, I was in the 8th grade. And so a really big dream died for me."

Softball first became an Olympic sport back in 1996, making its debut at the Atlanta Summer Games. That year, the U.S. women won the first-ever softball gold medal. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, Team USA made it to the final but was defeated by Japan. Softball was off of the schedule for the 2012 and 2016 Games.

"For our sport to be taken out was really heartbreaking for our entire community," recounts McCleney. "So now you look at your goals when you're in middle school or high school or whatever and you're like, 'Well, how elite can I get?' And for the majority of softball players it's college and that's the pinnacle."

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That's no longer the case: "When we got that news I can't even express to you how much of a relief it was, how much of a dream it was coming back alive," McCleney says,"how much hard work it took to get back into the Games it was. There were many tears shed when it happened."

Japan was behind the vote to re-include softball in Tokyo, as the sport remains very popular in the country.

Dejah Mulipola, 23, who currently plays softball for University of Arizona, tells PEOPLE, "just to see that I was going to be able to have a shot and compete with players like Haylie and Cat Osterman, it was just a dream that was brought back to life."

Team USA is one of the six teams already qualified to compete this summer, and Mulipola says, "I'm just excited for us to get this opportunity again. I'm excited about this team and the opportunities we're being given."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.

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