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There's no place like home for well-traveled U. coach

IT TOOK JUST TWO weeks for Utah softball coach Mona Stevens to decide she would never complain about the little things again. Holed up in a Holiday Inn in El Paso? No problem. Middle seat on the plane? Relax and enjoy the ride. No room service after 11? Fine by her. You won't hear a bad word from Stevens.

Two weeks in a drug capital will do that to you. After leading the American team to the gold medal at the Pan Am Qualifying Tournament at Medellin, Colombia, last July, all she can say now is it's great to be an American. She's just happy to be here. If you don't like playing games in Laramie, try concentrating in a stadium with armed guards wearing bulletproof vests. Wake up to the sound of a bomb going off a half-block down the street - which is exactly what happened to her and the other members of the U.S. team - and you start realizing valet laundry service isn't all that important."There really is no place like home," said Stevens. "I wish everyone had a chance to be an athlete and experience life outside the United States."

Stevens' opportunity wasn't something she planned. She was selected from among the nation's college softball coaches to lead the U.S. team in the tournament. She naturally assumed her biggest concern would be relating to some of the best softball players in America - which also means some ofthe best in the world.

The pressure to win was enormous. The American team was expected, simply by virtue of being American, to win every game. Also, it needed to win to make sure it got needed funding and support from the USOC.

"I didn't tell the team that," said Stevens. "They had enough pressure on them already."

Nothing, however, could have prepared them for playing in Colombia. While they were mobbed like rock stars when they handed out USA lapel pins, they were jeered during games for being American bullies. They couldn't jog because the pollution caused their lungs and eyes to burn. They ate their meals in a fenced courtyard topped by barbed wire. The menu had only three or four items, so they ate the same food virtually every day. Stevens kept hearing fans calling, "Mona! Mona!" and wondered how they knew her name. Actually, it can mean "lovely," "pretty," or "charming," or in another usage, "female monkey." She laughs, saying she was told it meant "blond."

When the Americans won 15-0 over Colombia - the hometown favorite - fans entertained themselves by asking Stevens out on dates or simply calling obscenities. Eventually they labeled her, "Manager Barbie" - to the delight of her players.

"I'm sure they enjoyed that," she said.

The obstacles of playing the games were actually secondary to others. The team was met at the airport by four armed guards. Players were told never to leave the hotel without being accompanied by several teammates and a male escort. Numerous times players awakened to the sound of gunfire. The morning the bomb went off down the street, players were sleeping in their rooms. Stevens thought the hotel had been hit by lightning. "I felt like a cartoon character, one of those that hits the ceiling and sticks."

For a city accustomed to drug wars and violence, it was business as usual. Residents walked past the bombed building, barely pausing to stare.

At the ballpark the security was similar to the airport. Armed guards with bulletproof vests lined the paths to the field. The outfield fence was lined with barbed wire, as were the side fences.

"At first we thought it was a little bit much," she said. "Then there was the bomb."

On the first day of competition, the American team was scheduled to play Puerto Rico. "They weren't really too female-friendly," she said. Though rules dictated the teams flip a coin to see who got to be the home team, as well as to choose the dugout, the Puerto Rican team had already taken over the third-base dugout. Stevens had to notify an official, who reluctantly flipped the coin. The U.S. won and Stevens said she wanted the third-base dugout. Another official entered to say he was the only one who could flip a coin. The U.S. team won that, too. The Puerto Ricans grumbled all the way to the other side of the diamond.

Through it all, the Americans were expected to win it all. They won their first two games but lost in Game 3 to Canada. The crowd, ever cheering against the Americans, went wild. Stevens pulled her players in a room the night of the loss and told them to put their hands over their hearts. In so doing, they covered the "A" on the U-S-A. "Us. That's who we have to play for," she said. "You're trying to please everyone but yourselves."

They went on to win 10 straight and the gold medal.

Thus ended the Americans' world-traveling adventure; they had won the gold. But unlike other tournaments, this time they weren't just glad to win, they were glad they had lived to tell.