September 2 2014 Latest news:
Thursday, June 12, 2014
As the school year comes to a close, most 14-year-olds will be looking forward to the summer holidays, and perhaps a trip to Devon or Spain or somewhere further afield.
But for Laura Hirai from Brooklands Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, a whole different adventure beckons.
Laura is heading to Florida in August to play baseball for Britain’s mixed Under-16 team in the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Gold Medal Games – the first time a British girl has been selected for the competition.
Laura, a student at Haberdashers’ Aske’s, will be playing on a team which, besides her, is made up exclusively of boys – many of whom are two years older and over a foot taller.
But the 5ft 1in wunderkind is not fazed and says matter-of-factly: “To be good at baseball, height and strength helps, but the most important thing is technique and mental toughness. I don’t have the power but I have the will to succeed.”
The starlet was born in the UK but moved to Japan when she was five years old, before relocating to London aged 11.
Ever since she watched baseball on TV and went to games in Tokyo as a young child, Laura has been hooked and has played the sport for as long as she can remember.
Last year she represented Great Britain at a European baseball tournament in Prague, and her father James, a 41-year-old financial analyst, remembers the occasion fondly.
“They were playing against a Polish team who were initially delighted to be playing against a girl,” he recalled. “By the end they were saying open-mouthed, ‘I wish she was Polish’.”
Closer to home, the young prodigy represents Finsbury Park-based London Mets, who won the national baseball championship last year, with Laura being voted Most Valuable Player (MVP).
Laura also plays football and featured for Hampstead FC in the Under-14 FA Cup final defeat against Spurs’ girls in May.
And, asked for her interests outside of baseball, she replied: “Mainly football, javelin, tennis, badminton, cross-country and other sports.”
She has set her sights on becoming the first ever female player in the American Major League. But, for now, the focus is on Great Britain’s trip to Florida.
The gruelling international selection process began last October and lasted six months, including six weekends of full-day training sessions in Milton Keynes.
Laura explains: “We were tested on our strength, throwing, fielding and hitting. Then we got tested on our pitching and it was then that I knew I was going to get in the team. When I found out I had been picked, I didn’t stop smiling for weeks.”
Laura, who is a pitcher and infielder, wants more girls to follow her lead. She said: “Sports like football and baseball are seen as being for boys, but girls can compete just as well. And even if you can’t play very well, you can still enjoy it, and that’s the great thing about sport.
“I cannot wait for the tournament and am counting down the days – it’s the biggest competition I have ever played in. Hopefully we can bring back a medal for Great Britain.”
Both of Laura’s parents will attend the event and her dad said: “We’re really proud. When she plays, she is a baseball player and not a girl playing baseball, and she always plays with a smile on her face, which rubs off on everyone.”
Those who have coached and worked with Laura are equally fulsome in their praise.
Will Lintern, the Baseball Softball UK (BSUK) national development manager, oversaw Laura’s selection for this summer and said: “Laura is a tremendous athlete and a great pitcher. She is passionate about the game, practises exceptionally hard and is prepared to tackle whatever is put in front of her.
“It’s refreshing to see a young woman with no regard for the barriers to female participation in sport.”
London Mets coach Pietro Sollecito, who has managed Laura for four years, said: “There are few players who can do what she can, male or female. I’ve coached her at three different age groups, and each time she has excelled even more. I have no doubt she’ll be Britain’s best player this summer.”
n London Mets is an amateur baseball club based in Finsbury Park, N4 and Clissold Park, N16.
The club are always interested in new players and members, with or without experience, aged seven or over. Visit the website at www.londonmets.org/ or email email@example.com for more information.