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WHATEVER LIFE BRINGS, BERG WILL SAVOR HER GOLD-MEDAL 'HIT'

There was one out, runners on first and second, when Laura Berg came to the plate Tuesday night for the U.S. women's softball team in the gold-medal game against Japan. It was tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the eighth inning and a steady rain was falling at the Blacktown baseball stadium.

Japan's outfielders were in a few steps, hoping to cut down the potential winning run at the plate on a hit. Berg, a slim, 5-foot-7 center fielder, didn't think about being a hero. She barely felt any pressure. She told herself to enjoy the moment, to smell the grass and feel the rain, and to revel in the simple pleasure of being healthy and alive.

That's what she'd been telling herself for more than a year, ever since the accident. On Aug. 28, 1999, she got a phone call, informing her that her fiance, Eric Kidd, had been seriously injured. He had fallen awkwardly while wrestling with a friend and crushed two vertebrae in his back.

Kidd was paralyzed from the waist down. One year earlier, he had proposed to her on a beach in California. They were about to set a wedding date when the accident occurred. Now Kidd had to go through tests and physical therapy. He didn't know if he would ever walk again. He told Berg there wouldn't be any wedding.

"I love him unconditionally," Berg said. "I want to marry him. Whenever he's ready."

Last New Year's, Berg made a vow to live life to the fullest. She wanted to be with Kidd, but she felt a duty to U.S. softball. Kidd, who had gone to all her home games when she was an all-American at Fresno State, said she belonged with the team. So Berg went on the six-month pre-Olympic tour. She saw Kidd, now living with his parents in Nevada, for the last time on Valentine's Day. They have corresponded via e-mail and by telephone. He is still resisting the idea of marriage.

"It's been real tough on both of us," she said. "He thinks it's not fair for me to take care of him for the rest of his life. That's a normal reaction in his situation. But it doesn't matter. I'm going to be there for him."

When you're coming to grips with the fact that the love of your life will probably never walk again, you don't get so worked up about strikeouts and errors. A tough loss takes on a whole new meaning.

"Oh, it really puts things into perspective," said Berg, 24. "Softball is a game. This is life. You have to make sure to savor every moment. It makes you cherish every little thing. I cherish the trees now, the grass, the animals. Especially my family. You don't know what each day will bring. You should take an extra 30 seconds before you leave the house every morning. Stop and say, 'I love you.' "

It's not as if softball stopped being important. Berg is a fierce competitor, a fine center fielder, the swiftest player on the team. She started as a 20-year-old at the 1996 Olympics, when the U.S. won its first gold. Tuesday, she got a late jump on a line drive to center by Japan's Reika Utsugi in the fourth. Berg ran back and leaped at the fence, but the ball dropped just over it, giving Japan a 1-0 lead off U.S. superstar, Lisa Fernandez.

"I should have caught the ball," Berg said. "I'm in there for a reason. I felt I owed Lisa one after that."

Fernandez had pitched courageously. One day before, she had pitched seven innings to get the U.S. into the final. By her own admission, she didn't have her best stuff.

"I didn't have it all together tonight," Fernandez said. "But my teammates kept telling me, 'Lise, stay with us. Lise, keep fighting, we'll get you some runs.' They're always there for me and it was a tremendous opportunity to be part of this team, with everything we had to endure, right to the very end."

The U.S. players had to battle through all manner of adversity. They lost three games in a row during the preliminaries. They were basically written off; NBC even cut back their exposure on its telecasts. Early in the tournament, the grandfather of shortstop Crystl Bustos died. And there was the lingering tragedy of Eric and Laura.

One run can be a monumental deficit in women's softball. When the U.S. went through four innings without a hit, trailing, 1-0, you figured its run was coming to an end. But the U.S. tied the game on an RBI single by Stacey Nuveman in the fifth. Fernandez kept the Americans in it until walks to Nuveman and Dot Richardson gave Berg her chance in the eighth. On a 1-0 pitch, she drove a ball deep to left.

Japan's leftfielder, Shiori Koseki, hesitated and moved back on the ball. She fell backward and had the ball in her glove for an instant. But it popped out and pinch-runner Jennifer McFalls raced home with the winning run. A tough official scorer ruled it an error.

"I don't care how they scored it," Berg said. "It's a hit in my mind. I was watching it all the way. She went back on it pretty well and then she tripped over her feet. It popped out and I said, 'Oh, my God!' I'm so happy right now. This whole tournament we were pretty unlucky, and something finally went our way."

When McFalls crossed the plate, the U.S. players leaped on one another in celebration. They grabbed a couple of American flags and ran toward the right-field seats to salute their fans. After the medal ceremony, Berg led her teammates in a line to home plate. Each of them stepped on it one final time. She ran off to call her father in California. She took part in the official news conference. Afterward, she talked some more outside the media tent. It was still raining.

"The emotions are up and down for me right now," she said. Her parents couldn't be in Sydney. Her mother is a teacher and class is back in session. Her dad is an engineer and couldn't leave because the plant is moving. Eric is in Nevada, coming to grips with being paralyzed.

"It's been too long since the accident, so he won't get any feeling back," she said. "He has it in his shoulders and some of his upper body, but nothing in his hands or lower body."

Berg seemed determined not to show pity for her fiancee, whose greatest challenge will be to avoid pitying himself. She said she was looking forward to calling him in a couple of hours. He would be thrilled about the gold medal. And it was his birthday.

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