OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch announced Tuesday that she will retire next month, bringing an end to a 10-year career in which she helped softball blossom in the United States.
The dominating pitcher will play her final games with the U.S. national team this week at the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. She'll then finish the rest of the National Pro Fastpitch season with the Chicago Bandits before calling it quits at the age of 29 to focus on her family.
The 6-foot-2 Finch was a standout at Arizona before becoming an icon with the U.S. team, going 32-0 her junior year and putting together 60 consecutive wins -- both NCAA records. She won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and silver four years later in Beijing.
This month, she helped the U.S. win its seventh straight world championship.
"This whole career has been way more than I ever even imagined or dreamed," Finch said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The opportunities that I'd be able to enjoy and appreciate and be a part of, it's been incredible."
Finch was much more than a pretty face as she took over for Lisa Fernandez as the most recognized player in a sport enjoying growing popularity. Her 60-game run stretched over nearly two years and included the 2001 WCWS title, a dominance that carried over to the national team, where she combined with the likes of Fernandez and Cat Osterman to make up the world's best pitching rotation through the early part of the decade.
"For Jennie Finch, she's a stud on the field and everyone's going to love her while she's playing but no one is going to forget her because of the person that she is," U.S. outfielder Jessica Mendoza said. "That is what she has over almost any other person that's at the top of their sport.
"She's the most popular person in our sport. How many other sports can you say that their most popular player is the best person to the fans than anyone else?"
Coupled with her softball skills, Finch's beauty and charm landed her a place in pop culture. She struck out some of the big leagues' best hitters in appearances on "This Week in Baseball" and made the rounds on late-night talk shows.
"She set the standard for softball in a new era of being able to be feminine and play this sport," Mendoza said. "Not that you have to be feminine to play this sport, but I see hundreds of thousands of little girls now with glitter headbands, hot pink bats, makeup. I'm not saying that every girl has to do that but when I was growing up, it wasn't like that.
"She has created a new era of softball player, and it's for those softball players -- those little girls out there -- that want to be cutesy with the bows and the glitter and still be that dirty jock. Covered head to toe in dirt but she's got her hair all perfect with a bow."
Finch, who will turn 30 in September, said it's time to turn her focus to her family. She and pitcher Casey Daigle, who has split this season between the Houston Astros and Triple-A Round Rock, have a 4-year-old son, Ace, and hope to have more children.
The couple have spent about two weeks together at their Arizona home over the past year, Finch said, and the world championships in Venezuela meant 14 days away from her family.
"I just feel like it gets harder and harder every year with Ace getting older and time away from my husband and even family events such as birthdays and friends' weddings and things that I've always just missed out on because of softball," Finch said.
While many of her veteran teammates walked away from the game after the U.S. lost to Japan in the gold-medal game in 2008, Finch stuck around and helped with an unsuccessful bid to get softball added back into the Olympics. It won't be played at the 2012 or 2016 games.
As one of few veterans left, she became a team leader as the Americans re-established themselves as the No. 1 team in the world.
"She's such a great ambassador for that," U.S. coach Jay Miller said. "That's going to be the most difficult thing to replace."
Finch hopes that eliminating travel and training will give her more time to help spread the sport, through her own camps and possibly with a role in USA Softball or as a coach or team owner.
"I hope to stay involved," she said. "It's been such a big part of my life and I can't imagine my life without it."
Even now, Finch gets a rush out of putting on the red, white and blue and hearing a home crowd chant "U-S-A" -- something she'll experience a few final times at the World Cup beginning Thursday night. The Bandits' last regular-season game is scheduled for Aug. 22 at home in Elgin, Ill.
"Right now in my career, it's like I'm having more fun than I've ever had, so it's kind of like, "Man, I can't stop now,"' she said. "I'm playing first base and pitching and hitting. I feel like I'm almost better than I've ever been. It's like, "You're going to walk away like this?"'
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