Dot Richardson has returned to the U.S. national women's softball team, even though it seems as though she never left.

At age 37, Richardson is here at the Pan American Games playing second base for the U.S. team that is favored to win the gold medal. This month marks her first national team appearance since the 1996 Olympics, when she hit the game-winning home run against China in the gold-medal game.

While Richardson has been away from the team, she hasn't been far from the sport, promoting it through motivational speeches and television appearances. Richardson completed her five-year orthopedic surgery residency program at the University of Southern California on July 1 and will soon begin working for an orthopedic surgery group that works with all the professional sports teams in Los Angeles. And of course, the 2000 Games in Sydney are in her plans.

"The number one reason why I continue playing is that I have a passion for the sport, and I believe that all of us have been given a talent," Richardson said. "I hope that I am considered an ambassador and I hope that when I do leave this sport that I have left it in a position that is much more successful than I ever dreamt I could help make it get."

Softball, along with women's basketball and soccer, has been credited with spurring the burgeoning interest in women's athletics since the 1996 Olympics. Of those three teams, only women's basketball was televised during the Olympics; softball and women's soccer were shown only in highlight packages.

"The sport has always been there and been exciting," said first baseman Sheila Douty, a member of the 1996 Olympic team. "The biggest thing is that at the Olympics, you can promote your sport to other people. There were highlights on, and the softball fans made sure they saw the highlights. But when the average fans saw the highlights, they got excited about the sport."

Women's basketball and soccer have remained in the public eye. Two women's basketball leagues, the defunct American Basketball League and the WNBA, were created after the Olympics. The recent Women's World Cup was played in front of record crowds.

Softball, however, has not had the same kind of exposure. Following the Olympics, the team toured the United States in an effort to promote their sport and drum up interest in a professional league.

The Women's Professional Softball League began in 1997 in six cities, mainly concentrated in the Southeast: Tampa, Columbus, Ga.; Durham, N.C.; Hampton, Va.; Gastonia, N.C.; and Akron, Ohio. Although it has received scant attention nationwide, the league is hoping to expand following the 2000 Olympics.

But only one member of the Pan Am team has played in the WPSL, 21-year-old infielder Crystl Bustos. The league struggled from the start to attract the elite national team players because most of them wanted to remain eligible to play in the 2000 Games.

But this is the first time that professional athletes have been allowed to compete in the Pan Am Games and the first time professional softball players have been eligible for the Olympics.

The Pan Am Games are an Olympic qualifying tournament, although the United States has already secured an invitation to Sydney by virtue of its ISF Women's World Championship won in Fujinomiya, Japan, in July 1998.

The U.S. women's softball team has dominated Pan Am competition since it began in 1979, winning four of a possible five gold medals. Canada beat the United States, 5-4, in the championship game in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1983.

Since that game, the United States has not lost at the Pan Am Games, winning 32 consecutive games. In that span, the U.S. team has outscored its opponents 208-5.

Still, USA Softball has sent its frontline team to Winnipeg; nine of the 15 players on the Pan Am roster were members of the 1996 Olympic team. Tonight, the U.S. team beat the Netherlands Antilles, 5-0. Right fielder Solange Ostiana's leadoff single in the seventh inning ruined a perfect game for U.S. pitcher Michele Smith, who struck out 15. Ostiana was the only player to record a hit--or even reach base--against the United States in two games.

"The team is really excited to be here," Richardson said. "We are pushing to that 2000 Olympics. We are excited about what happened in 1996, but we are using this international competition to pave the way for another gold."