Catchings Has Eye on Gold
While the world has looked at this year’s Centennial Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, with a wary eye, Tamika Catchings has gazed at her first Olympic appearance with the wide-eyed, rapt attention of a child at Christmas.
The security issues facing the 2004 Summer Olympiad, which begins on Aug. 13, take a backseat to Catchings’ pursuit of gold – and a lifelong dream that truly began to take shape as she watched Team USA, led by Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, take the gold in Atlanta in 1996.
“I’m excited. This is my first Olympics, so I don’t think there’s anything that can keep me from going. Even if I’d had to go by myself, I’d still go,” Catchings said.
“I’ve played USA Basketball long enough to know that if something were to go down or if they suspected something, they would let us know. They’ve always looked at things with our best interests as players.”
But Catchings understands the added significance the Summer Olympics take on this year, in a world that has changed dramatically since the last Summer Games were held in Sydney, Australia in 2000.
“It’s the first big (international) event since 9/11,” she said. “It’ll probably be one of the biggest Olympics ever because of what has gone on in the world over the past four years and because of what’s still going on. I think people will be real focused on this.”
She said she hopes the Olympics will be a catalyst for understanding and learning for everyone, just as previous international competitions have been for her.
“Sports is kind of like life. You learn a lot of different things when you’re playing,” Catchings said. “It’s one of those things that you do look at it and say, we’re all in this together. You see so many people come from different places. We’re still able to compete. I’ve played USA Basketball for so long and every year you see the same people and play against them. You go up and hug, but you can’t really talk because you don’t speak the language, but there’s friendship there.”
But there is also competition – lots of it - and the realization of a dream shared by anyone with an athletic bone in his or her body.
“For so long, you look at the Olympics and see it’s going on. For some people, it doesn’t seem reachable. You say, ‘It’d be great to be the best and to play in the Olympics, but that’d never happen to me,’” Catchings said. “Now, here I am. I really started thinking about the Olympics after that 1996 Olympic year, seeing Dawn (Staley) and Sheryl (Swoopes) and watching them. It was so exciting to me that was when I said, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to be on an Olympic team.'"
Coach Brian Winters, whose playing career did not include a spot on an Olympic team, understands how Catchings feels about this chance to compete for a gold medal.
“It’s a great event, the Olympics. It’s something every person who is competitive and athletic in any sport wants to be a part of – has a dream to be a part of at some point in their life,” he said. “Not everybody gets to fulfill that dream. Tamika gets to fulfill it, and it’s a great honor. It’s a tribute to her play and how good she is.”
Not unlike this Olympics’ version of the men’s so-called “Dream Team,” the USA Basketball Senior Women’s Team is the favorite to bring home the gold in Athens, which means the U.S. will be marked from the beginning of the competition as the team to beat. Team USA owns a 34-3 overall record (.919 winning percentage) in Olympic competition and has won a record four golds, including the last two (in 1996 and 2000) with perfect 8-0 Olympic records.
“We just have to go out there and perform,” said Catchings. “USA Basketball has done a great job of putting together a group that can win, and we all feel that we can win. That’s the biggest thing. That’s where it starts. I don’t think there’s really pressure. We’re supposed to win and we know that everyone’s going to come out and play their best game against us, but we just have to come out every night. There’s not going to be a night when you can come out and not be prepared for what’s ahead of you.”
All the players understand that Team USA is the favorite in women’s basketball. And Catchings has already played the medal ceremony in her mind, knowing that moment would be an emotional conclusion to an extraordinary accomplishment.
“I’m such an emotional person, I know I’ll be the biggest baby,” Catchings smiled. “That’ll be my first (medal). Mine and Swin’s (Cash) and Sue’s (Bird) and (Diana) Taurasi’s. . . . If we do stand up in the end and get that gold medal and they play the National Anthem, it’ll be one of those things you’ll never forget. My mom will be there. I want to have kids eventually and to one day be able to tell them that I was an Olympian and to show them my gold medal and all the things I accomplished. That’s probably the ultimate.”