To this day, Leah O’Brien-Amico remembers the phone call. It came a decade ago, but it seems like yesterday. It was in the morning. O’Brien-Amico, who was at the time still in the process of building her softball-legend status as part of the U.S. National Team, was standing in the lobby of a hotel chatting with some teammates.
She was in a good mood; it was a joyful time. An Olympic gold medal-winning athlete, O’Brien-Amico had just wrapped up her final season at the University of Arizona, where her team had won the College World Series about a month earlier. It was the third national title Arizona had won while she was there.
Now she was traveling with Team USA. She was at the pinnacle of her faith to that point in her life. She was submitting to Christ daily, asking Him to use her through her sport to witness for Him, and she had recently gotten up the nerve to lead her teammates in prayer during games. Things were good.
And then came the call.
She thought it was her sister checking on her. Instead, it was a college teammate calling to tell her that one of her best friends and fellow former Wildcat, Julie Reitan, was dead. She had died in her sleep of complications from diabetes. She was 21.
This can’t be happening. Not Julie. She is too young, too full of life, too much of an influence. She is too good to be gone; her faith is larger than life. How could God take a life like that?
O’Brien-Amico felt like the ground had been yanked out from under her. In the coming days, she spent sleepless nights asking God why; but she also turned to Him for strength. After all, she had nowhere else to go but to Him.
“The testimony He gave me through that was, first and foremost, don’t take one day for granted,” she said.
O’Brien-Amico’s voice still lights up when she talks about Reitan. The daughter of a minister, Reitan had been a bubbly, outgoing teammate. She had reached out to O’Brien-Amico and the rest of their teammates and displayed to them a Christ-like life. Before O’Brien-Amico was sold-out to her own Christian faith, she could tell that Reitan had something she didn’t.
“When Julie came on the team everyone knew she was a Christian and people talked about her being different,” O’Brien-Amico said. “They would say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t drink and she doesn’t talk bad. Her dad’s a pastor; watch what you say around her.’ She was so fun! She would pray with them, and people would talk with her about their problems.”
O'Brien-Amico (top right) with Reitan (far left) and Arizona teammates.
Life for O’Brien-Amico changed forever when Reitan invited her to an Athletes in Action meeting. In that first meeting, she rededicated her life to Christ and began pursuing a life with Him. Along the way, she had Reitan to cheer her on and help her grow in her faith.
“She challenged me when I needed to be challenged,” O’Brien-Amico said. “She helped me see that I needed to learn about Him. Every single day we have a chance to make a difference in someone’s life.”
And that is the message she shares today, whether she’s coaching high school girls at Chino Hills High School in Chino, Calif., hosting clinics or speaking to youth groups across the country.
“Wherever I go, I take that message to help people realize that we need to be thinking about where we are ultimately going,” O’Brien-Amico said. “I ask people, ‘Have you thought about eternal things?’ We just don’t know how long we have. Julie was 21 years old, and she died in her sleep. I could be gone tomorrow. We need to be ready.”
Along with eternal lessons, O’Brien-Amico says that there is another important lesson she shares with those in an audience.
“God has shown me He will use our passion and talents to make a difference for Him,” she said. “He eventually showed me that He has given me a platform through my love of softball.”
In her storied career, O’Brien-Amico has won three Olympic gold medals and is heralded as one of the world’s best softball players. But her love for the sport pales in comparison to her passion for Christ and her zeal for leading others to Him. She truly overflows with the love of Christ.
To get a glimpse of who O’Brien-Amico is, picture this situation: This February, she settled in on a sofa in FCA board member Danny Cash’s home in Spartanburg, S.C., with a team of 12-and-under softball players gathered around her. She had flown in from her home in California to speak at an FCA girls event and had carved out time to meet with Cash’s daughter’s team while she was there. O’Brien-Amico chatted with the girls, let them wear her gold medals and talked with them candidly about the importance of developing a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“She talked with them like she had always known them,” recalled Spartanburg FCA Area Representative Kaye O’Sullivan, who attended the event. “I’ve never seen someone so at ease with everyone.”
"Every single day we have a chance to make a difference in someone's life."
-O'Brien-Amico, pictured above at a 2008 FCA Women in Sport event
O’Brien-Amico can be contacted
for speaking engagements
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O’Sullivan had asked O’Brien-Amico to be the keynote speaker for an FCA Women in Sport event she was hosting in Spartanburg for seventh through 12th-grade girls. Almost 70 girls made decisions for Christ after her talk, but according to O’Sullivan, O’Brien-Amico’s words were not what struck her most.
“She stayed afterward and took time to talk with all the girls,” O’Sullivan said. “She stayed until the last girl wanted to talk. She ate lunch with them and went from table to table, speaking to everyone. I looked over one time and she was sitting with a group of 70-something year-old women volunteers, talking and laughing with them.”
What now has become a large platform and ministry originally began on a rec league team in Chino. Success came early for O’Brien-Amico. When she was a 14-year-old left-handed pitcher, she helped lead her team to a national championship.
In 1993, after high school, she signed with the softball powerhouse University of Arizona Wildcats as a pitcher/first baseman and later moved to outfield. She was a three-time All-American and a three-time Academic All-American during her collegiate career.
Arizona FCA Area Representative Brian Beltramo, a former sportscaster, covered O’Brien-Amico for NBC affiliate KVOA-TV in Phoenix. He recalls that she had the complete package of talent and power as a player.
“She was a five-tool player,” he said, referring to the baseball/softball term for the sport’s ideal. “She could run, hit for average, hit for power, throw and defend.”
The Olympic Committee made softball an Olympic sport in 1993, and when the first-ever U.S. Olympic team was announced in 1995, O’Brien-Amico made the squad. Soon she was recognized as one of the world’s best clutch hitters (and a lefty at that), claiming gold medals in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. One of the youngest players in the 1996 Games, by the time 2004 came around, O’Brien-Amico had become a wife and mother. And she had still improved her game.
“She’s one of the most gifted softball players I’ve ever seen or covered,” Beltramo said.
Her list of accomplishments and awards makes her a virtual softball Michael Jordan, and yet meeting her is like meeting the girl next door.
“She is hilarious,” Beltramo said. “She was always jovial and upbeat.”
During those college days at Arizona, O’Brien-Amico’s faith in the Lord was just beginning to grow. She grew up in church and made a decision to accept Christ as a child, but she never developed a relationship with Him. She says she was a good, moral person, but when temptations and pressures closed in from all sides in college, simply trying to be a good person wasn’t enough.
“It’s one of those things where I said a prayer, but my life didn’t really change,” O’Brien-Amico said. “I prayed and I did believe in what Jesus promised, but I didn’t have the truth of the Bible. I had more of an American Christianity: just be a good person.”
But that’s when she met Julie Reitan. And today, O’Brien-Amico is to many athletes what Reitan was to her: a shining light of Christ’s redeeming love. The seed Reitan sowed in her life continues to reap a tremendous harvest.
“Most kids don’t know what they want to do and aren’t passionate about anything,” O’Brien-Amico said. “I tell them, ‘God has created you for a bigger purpose! Do you want to be part of this and be along for an exciting ride?’ When we let God lead, it’s always better than we imagine.”
Position: First Base and Outfield
Residence: Eastvale, Calif.
• 3-time Olympic Gold Medalist
• 2-time World Champion
• 2-time Pan Am Games Champion
• 3-time NCAA Champion
• NCAA Arizona Woman of the Year (1997)
• 3-time NFCA All-American
• 3-time 1st Team Academic All-American
• One of 10 women named to the NCAA Div. I Softball 25th Anniversary Team
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of USA Softball, Kaye O'Sullivan, Leah O'Brien-Amico.