In summer 2021, Frankie Billingsley, associate registrar and director, student records and scheduling at York University, realized a lifelong dream when she travelled to Tokyo to be an umpire for women’s softball at the Olympic Games – a journey that began five years earlier.
In 2016, Billingsley was invited by Canada’s umpire in chief to try out for an umpire spot for the 2020 Olympic Games, which was followed by a comprehensive four-year evaluation process.
“A lot of people don’t realize that, similar to athletes, the officials go through the same rigorous process to get to the Olympics,” she says. She and other officials were evaluated at two world championships, the Pan-American Games and several international tournaments; in early 2020, she learned she was one of 13 officials selected.
“I started to cry,” Billingsley says of the phone call from the national director of umpires, which was followed by an email from the World Baseball/Softball Confederation, letting her know she was selected to umpire at the Olympic Games. “It was something that I had always dreamed of. Anyone that’s involved in sports, the best thing you can ever do is represent your country at the Olympics, and even though I always wanted to do that, I never thought it would come to fruition – and then when it actually did, I was just so overwhelmed with emotion. I think my husband even cried, so it was a pretty special moment.”
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic moved across the globe and the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed, Billingsley would wait another year to realize her dream. During that time, however, she moved from Alberta to Ontario, and began her role at York, which she says was a silver lining.
A dream come true
In July 2021, Billingsley arrived in Tokyo for a 12-day stay during which she officiated seven women’s softball games. She recalls seeing the softball diamond and Olympic rings for the first time, saying, “I just remember getting out of the bus and walking to the diamond, and my breath was just taken away when I saw the stadium, and seeing the Olympic rings and the Tokyo 2020 logo.
“The stadium and the field of play was so beautiful, it was just a moment – and just walking on the diamond, walking on the grass, knowing the Olympic players were going to be playing on that very field was just so special. All the work you put into achieving something, and it’s right there at your fingertips, is just such a neat feeling.”
Being at the Olympic Games during a global pandemic without spectators was a different experience, she says, but it didn’t diminish the event’s magnitude. “Even though there were no spectators at the sports, every time I went onto the diamond and I saw those Olympic rings, I assure you the specialness of the opportunity wasn’t lost,” she says. “And the intensity of the games was still incredibly powerful. You could tell Olympic medals were on the line from the moment of the first pitch. It was incredible.”
Billingsley adds she was proud to be part of the all-women’s crew assigned to the final game, describing it as emotional and special.
On day two of the Olympic Games, Billingsley unwittingly became a TikTok star when she experienced an injury behind the plate. She was hit by a foul tip, causing a concussion. Fortunately, she was able to continue officiating through the Olympics, but she admits that she still experiences headaches resulting from the injury.
“I never in a million years would have thought that I would go all the way to Tokyo to participate in the Olympics Games and sustain a concussion for the first time in my life and have someone make a TikTok video out of it,” she laughs. “The TikTok video was such a great way to take a situation and spin it into something super positive. I felt very grateful that even though I sustained the injury, I was able to finish that game, and also to continue officiating and that injury didn’t sideline me.”
Billingsley’s Olympic experience was the culmination of a lifetime of involvement in sport, with softball experience since age 13, and 21 years of experience with umping and additional experience coaching. “It’s such a unique team sport because you’re all vying for the same thing and trying to achieve the same goals, but at the same time, when you’re fielding a ball or when you’re up to bat, you’re completely on your own – so I’ve always been drawn to the fact that it’s a team sport that you share with eight other players on the field and the other players on the bench, but when you’re in the game on offence or defence, you’re on your own,” she says.
Billingsley is now turning her attention to the next generation of umpires, and giving back to the sport of softball. “I want to continue instructing, evaluating, mentoring, supervising championships, giving back to that next generation of officials – one of which will hopefully be the next representative for Canada at the Olympic Games.”
She says she is grateful for the opportunity to share her story with her York University colleagues. “I’ve only been at York for a little over a year, but the campus community has been so welcoming and embracing to me, I’m just grateful to be able to share my experience.”
She says her advice to York University students and anyone wanting to pursue a dream is simple: “Be true to who you are, work hard, dream big and anything is possible.”