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Four straight Olympic gold medals.
A 33-game winning streak in Olympic competition dating back to 1992.
A 72-1 record in major international competitions over the past 16 years.
For the U.S. Women’s National Team, winning gold medals is not a goal to strive for, it is a standard that must be maintained. As the 2012 Olympic team came together this weekend in Washington, D.C. for a three-day training camp to continue its preparation for the Olympics in London, they understood what is at stake.
“Every time you put on that USA jersey there’s a certain expectation there,” said veteran guard Sue Bird. “Not just in the Olympics, but every time we take the court, no matter where we are. And the expectation is to win and most times to win big. There’s definitely some pressure there, but no more than we put on ourselves. We want to win that gold medal just as much as anybody.”
Bird, along with current National Team teammates Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus, was part of the team that suffered the National Team’s only defeat in the past 16 years – a 75-68 loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship.
“Both of us were part of the team in Brazil in 2006 that came up short and we ended up with a bronze medal,” Bird said while sitting alongside Taurasi. “We know how that felt and it wasn’t fun to be a part of the team that didn’t win gold. So the pressure is really just what we put on ourselves, and with that we just want to win gold medals. And we don’t want to be the team not to.”
With the history of success and the wealth of talent the U.S. team boasts, winning is simply a foregone conclusion in the minds of many women’s basketball fans. But when it comes to Olympic competition, playing against the top teams in the world, teams that have played together for years rather than weeks, it only takes one bad performance to tarnish a legacy.
“Winning for USA Basketball is expected, said National Team head coach Geno Auriemma. “We won four in a row. We might be the most dominant team of any team since the Russian Red Army team. Every time we play, everybody thinks we’re supposed to win and we’re supposed to win by a lot and that’s a lot for these players to carry around and I know that. But at the same time, that’s what you sign up for when you play USA Basketball. It’s pressure; because there is no praise if you finish with the silver medal.”
For Auriemma, the pressure to win doesn’t begin in London. He’s focused on Monday’s exhibition game against the Brazilian National Team.
“If I say look it doesn’t matter what happens Monday, we’re just trying to put our team together, and then Brazil beats us, everybody will say, ‘man this Olympic team stinks,’” he said. “So you can’t say well it doesn’t matter what happens Monday – we have to win. We have to get used to winning right away.”
Something the U.S. squad will face when they meet the Brazilians on Monday – and will continue throughout the Olympics – is a national team that has trained together for years in preparation for this tournament, compared to just a few weeks.
“They’re going to be well-oiled machines,” said Maya Moore. “But it’s basketball. What we’re doing is pass, cut, screen and make reads. That’s all what we can do, and it’s a fun way to play. We can use our creativity, kind of learn each other and play off of each other, come together and stay together on defense; it should be a good thing.”
The Brazilian squad will feature current Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza, who has missed the first half of the WNBA season in order to focus solely on her commitment to her national team, as well as former Dream guard Iziane Castro Marques. Australia, which has finished the last three Olympics as the runner up to the United States, features a trio of players -- Jenna O'Hea (Sparks), Lauren Jackson (Storm) and Liz Cambage (Shock) -- missing the early portion of the WNBA season to prepare for London.
“We don’t have a choice, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to play in the Olympics or we wouldn’t be able play in the WNBA and none of us want that,” said Candace Parker of the U.S. squad. “So we just take advantage of the time that we have. We had a little training camp in May, we’ve had Coach Auriemma’s system in place for four years so all of us pretty much know it, and so it’s just about getting out on the court and finding that offensive flow.”
The ability for this group of superstars to set aside ego for the betterment of the team has been a key to their success. With the WNBA season beginning its Olympic hiatus on Friday, the players literally had a day to go from their WNBA teams – and the roles they play on them – to Team USA and their new set of responsibilities.
“It’s tough,” said Parker of the quick transition. “Catch and I were talking when we played two nights ago against each other and then now we come in and put on USA jerseys together. In a way it’s hard to go from opponents to teammates, you’re kind of looking at that person competitively.”
But Parker, Catchings and other players said there was no hesitation in putting aside their alpha-dog status that they must have on their WNBA team. They can all appreciate the help that they get by being surrounded by such an excellent collection of teammates.
“This team is very special,” said Parker. “I think that we have the opportunity to do something great. Nobody is holding us back; everybody is in for the gold medal. We realize that when people look at things, they don’t remember who scored what or who did what, it’s did you get the gold medal or not?”
Over the past two days in nation’s capital, the U.S. women have built on the foundation that has been laid in previous competitions and the three-day training camp that took place in Seattle in May. Both players and coaches feel the team is coming together quickly and looks more like a team that has played together for months rather than just a matter of days.
“I don’t have five months with them like I do with my teams at UConn,” said Auriemma.” That’s always my biggest worry, because when I have five months with my team I can massage it and tinker with it and move things around and really play the whole thing out. But with these guys you’ve got two weeks and it’s the Olympics and that’s it. Here’s the most pressure packed play you can get, you’ve got eight games that you’ve got to win and they’re all like NCAA Tournament final games.”
Bird, who along with Taurasi and Catchings has been a member of the past two gold medal-winning Olympic teams, understands how difficult it is to get through the pressure-packed Olympic tournament.
“Eight games in 16 days, it can wear on you,” she said. “And knowing that we have to improve each game because come the quarters, semis and finals, it’s one game. And now we’re all in the WNBA and we play three and five game series, but here you don’t get a chance to mess up.”
The last time the U.S. Women’s National Team messed up was back in the 2006 World Championship against Russia. With five players on this year’s Olympic team having gone through the experience of losing on the world stage, they’ll do whatever it takes not to do it again.
“When we came back with the bronze from the world championship, it was like what is going on?” said Catchings. “That feeling. I was on that team and that feeling that you have, that is something that you don’t ever want to experience. It’s like you let down not only yourself, not only your team, but also your country.”
The members of Team USA understand that this Olympics is bigger than the 12 of them that suit up in London. It is as if the history and tradition of the USA Basketball program has been weaved into the fabric of the very jerseys that they will wear on the court.
“Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and all those guys set the standard years ago,” said Augustus. “We’re trying to uphold it and keep the standards really high. But it’s a tough job every time we put on the red, white and blue. It’s all about the legacy at the end of the day. We’re thankful to be part of a successful legacy that the women before us have paved, but we understand that is tough to maintain it.”
For the U.S. Women’s National Team, they can never win silver. They can only lose gold. And they don’t plan on letting that happen anytime soon.