London 2012: Focused on Gold
They've been the gold standard of international women's basketball since 1996, when the first of four straight finishes atop the Summer Olympic Games podium took place.
The decorated ensemble constituting the 2012 USA women's basketball team have their sights set on extending that streak of Olympic glory to five in London, impressively unencumbered by the suffocating pressure typically attached to such an ambitious endeavor.
"There's definitely the expectation to win, and that's something that every time I've put the USA jersey on, that's in there," USA guard Sue Bird (Seattle Storm) told Yahoo!. "But we don't really see it as pressure, we see it as an opportunity. We want those expectations, 'cause that's what we want, that's our goal: to win a gold medal. We're not really worried about what people are saying, thinking, talking about us. We're taking it one game at a time until we achieve that goal."
The novelty of Olympic competition hasn't worn off on Bird, who, like fellow guard Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and forward Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), was on the gold medal-winning teams in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008).
"It's obviously a huge honor and one that for a lot of us growing up was our dream," Bird, an upstate New Yorker via Syosset, said. "There wasn't a WNBA when I was growing up and it was the one thing we looked forward to, to be on the Olympic team. To be selected--think about how talented the WNBA is and the USA is as a whole--in the top 12, it's incredible."
"Which team poses the greatest threat to team USA in this tournament?" I asked the trio.
"I would have to say Australia, for sure," said Bird, who features a pair of WNBA championships (2004, '10) and seven All-Star berths on her resume. "Russia, historically, has always played us tough. To be honest, I think France is going to be a team that people aren't really talking about and could easily beat anybody. That's kind of my sleeper team, because no one's talking about them."
Catchings, of Stratford, N.J., also views Australia and Russia as the two squads that could create trouble for team USA down the road. However, the seven-time WNBA All-Star cautioned: "Every team brings their A-game when they play the USA. So when you look at it from that standpoint, we know that when we're over there we have to be prepared, we need to be focused every night and not underestimate any team."
"You really just have to focus on the team you're playing that night," said Taurasi, a native of California (born in Glendale, raised in San Bernardino) and three-time NCAA champion (two-time Tournament MVP) under USA head coach Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut. "There's a lot a good teams and if they have a good night and you have a bad night, that's going to cost you a gold medal."
Catchings and Bird joined team USA in 2002, which at that time was led by Los Angeles Sparks all-time great Lisa Leslie. They've since become the team's leaders, the elder stateswomen, if you will, tasked in London with helping to perpetuate the status quo of international women's basketball.
"We came in as a young group back in 2002 with the [FIBA World Championship], and 10 years later we're [leading] the charge," Catchings said. "The same kind of lessons we were able to learn from the older players when we were younger, now to have our younger players watching us and looking at us, hopefully they'll learn some things from us that will help in future generations, in World Championship [tournaments] and future Olympics.
"It's been a lot of fun over the years," she added, "and I hope that the things I've learned I could pass on to the younger players."