Photo Source: IndyStar
To fully appreciate Tamika Catchings’ impact on the U.S. Olympic team in this, her fourth and final appearance in the Summer Games, we need to go back to her first. That was in August 2004 in Athens, Greece, and Catchings had turned 25 the month before.
She was just entering a professional athlete’s peak years. In her third season in the WNBA, she already was one of the top players in the league and the face of the Indiana Fever.
And she was part of a new wave of national team players, which included Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Catchings had started for the Americans in the 2002 world championship, and she got the call to do so again in the 2004 Olympics.
“My biggest role with that team was defense,” Catchings recalled. “I was trying to bridge the gap between the younger players and the older players, with them passing that torch on to our generation.”
In Athens, U.S. coach Van Chancellor started Catchings alongside more experienced players Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson.
“To be the fifth Beatle in that group?” Taurasi said. “She was the only one who could go into that group and hold her own. She kind of represented the younger generation. So when I saw her out there with that group, I thought, ‘Catch is going to be legendary.'”
It also helped inspire Taurasi, who averaged 8.5 points off the bench in the 2004 Olympics, and Bird, who was the point guard “understudy” to Staley, then playing in her final Olympics.
Bird recalls national team scrimmages over the years when her primary concern was whether she and Catchings were on the same side.
“I just always remember thinking, ‘I hope Tamika’s on my team,'” Bird said. “Because we would do drills where you could only score if you got the rebound, or if you get a deflection or have a steal. And in those scenarios, there’s nobody you want on your team besides Tamika.”
Catchings has been a staple of the national team, winning three Olympic gold medals and three world championship golds. Now age 37, she represents the older generation, and will retire from her playing career at the conclusion of this WNBA season. But she has been able to keep this final year of playing in the “present tense” as much as possible.
“I’ve definitely been able to stay in the moment and not take anything for granted,” she said. “I’m grateful to have this opportunity again and be around all these great players.
“It’s been a dream come true. And this year, it just means a lot more with it being my last time to be able to represent my country from this perspective.”
Catchings said it wasn’t until she was a teenager following the news about the U.S. national team’s 1995-96 tour to prepare for the Atlanta Games that she truly understood just how important the Olympics were. In the summer of 1996, when she was a rising senior in high school, Catchings was training in Colorado Springs with USA Basketball for the junior world championship qualifying tournament.
“After practice was over, they said, ‘Hang tight, guys, we’ve got a surprise for you all,'” Catchings said. “Then the door at the end of the gym opened, and Ruthie [Bolton] walked in with everybody else on the Olympic team, and they started singing, ‘Mighty Ruthie!’ And we were like, ‘Oh my God!’
“It was like the greatest moment. I was like, ‘I want to be them. I want to be on that team someday.'”
Catchings joined the senior national team in 2002. That was her first year in the WNBA. She had sat out 2001 in the league due to a knee injury that had ended her Tennessee collegiate career.
As is the case for Bird and Taurasi, Catchings’ only loss with the Team USA came in the 2006 world championship semifinals. Other than that, it has been an overwhelmingly golden success.
“The thing that players like Sheryl, Lisa and Dawn left with us is how to represent yourself every day as an American, as an ambassador for ourselves, individually, and our team,” Catchings said. “People are always watching us, whether it’s playing in the WNBA, overseas, or working with our respective charities. But there’s something especially important about representing the USA team, and how we act on a daily basis. That is about being a professional.”
Catchings averaged 6.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in the 2004 Olympics. In 2008, she battled injury to be ready for the Beijing Games, and came off the bench to average 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds.
“With Catchings, you knew she was going to go through a wall to get the job done,” said Anne Donovan, coach of the 2008 Olympic team and a former Olympic player herself. “Whether that was a rebound we had to get, a play we needed to run, a screen she had to set, it didn’t matter. She was going to do whatever was needed.
“Her work ethic and her pride in wearing red, white and blue … It’s hard to put it into words, but we all know it. We see it. Catchings is the one who’s going to come up with that loose ball or make that play when someone else thinks it’s impossible.”
For Catchings, 2012 was the most special year of all in her pro career. She again was a starter for the U.S. Olympic team, averaging 6.1 points and 4.9 rebounds at the London Games. Then she went back to Indiana and led the Fever to the WNBA title.
This year, Catchings has been doing a “farewell” tour in the WNBA, and she also has dealt with a heavy heart in saying goodbye to her beloved college coach, Pat Summitt, who died in June. The court, always her sanctuary, has been that again for Catchings. The chance to create another happy Olympic memory is something that she cherishes.
“This is her fourth time, and she’s still good enough to be a contributor,” said USA Basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who also coached Catchings in the 2012 Olympics. “When you mention Tamika and say what is she great at? She just plays harder than everybody else. She competes harder. I’ve always admired that in her.”