WASHINGTON — Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker battled it out Thursday night in a WNBA matchup between two of the top teams in the league. Now they’re wearing USA jerseys getting prepared to take on the world as teammates for the U.S. women’s national team.
Such is the life of a WNBA superstar — opponents one night, teammates the next.
After a grueling, condensed first half of the WNBA season, the U.S. players had less than 48 hours to start getting ready for a run at a fifth straight gold medal. There’s no time to rest mentally or physically as the Americans have two weeks to get ready for the London games.
“We’ve had a crazy first half of the year,” Parker said. “It’s like everyone is playing these crazy schedules. It takes a little out of you, but once you get that USA jersey on you get excited and ready to go.”
In 2008, the U.S. team got together right before the Beijing Olympics and four of the players on that team, including Parker, were involved in a vicious brawl earlier in the week that led to many suspensions. While it could have potentially caused tension in practice and divided the team, no such problems occurred. As it took about 5 minutes for the Olympians to laugh about it.
This time around there was no outside drama — just some good-natured ribbing. Asjha Jones kidded with Angel McCoughtry that she had been taking an “extended vacation” missing the Atlanta Dream’s last four games rehabbing her left knee sprain.
Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are all playing in their third Olympics and already are used to the quick turnaround switching from foes to friends.
“You really can’t think about it and focus on it,” said Catchings, who flew to Washington on Saturday. “Most of us have done this before and we’re used to it. You just change your mindset and we all have one goal in mind — that’s winning another gold.
‘It’s our job as the leaders to get everyone on the same page. We’ve been through it before as well as a few of the other veterans. It shouldn’t be too hard to get everyone ready.”
It definitely helps that half the team played for coach Geno Auriemma in college so they are already very familiar with his systems. So there isn’t the added burden of trying to learn a new offensive scheme.
“It makes it a bit easier that a lot of us already know what he expects,” said Maya Moore, who starred at UConn and is playing in her first Olympics.
The U.S. trained in Washington for two days before playing Brazil in an exhibition game Monday night. The Americans will then head to Manchester and Istanbul to train before going to London for the Olympics. Besides training, half the team took part in an emotional clinic for military families Saturday morning.
Auriemma can’t wait to get overseas so that his team can just focus on basketball.
“These next few days are just really about us getting acclimated to each other again,” he said. “Once we’re done with the D.C. part of the trip and are a plane to Manchester then we can really start getting ready for the task at hand.”
While other Olympic teams such as Australia and Russia have been training for months, the U.S. will have 14 days together before its first game. It’s been that way ever since the 1996 Olympic team won the first of the four straight gold medals. That team was able to train together for a whole year before the Olympics since the WNBA didn’t exist.
Now with the women’s pro league going strong and players competing overseas in the winter, it’s a lot tougher to find time to train. If you take away the world championship run in 2010, the Americans have spent about 40 days together over the past four years. Even that’s a little misleading since it was mostly piecemeal training with this group of 12 only together for three days in May.
“It’s the hand we’re dealt,” Auriemma said. “It’s not like we are trying to add an extra handicap to the team.”
What helps the U.S. players is its depth. While the 12 superstars usually have to carry their teams during the WNBA season, a lot less is needed out of them on the Olympic team.
“They may be asked to play 35 minutes a night in the WNBA whereas here we only need a good 15-20 minutes out of them a night,” Auriemma said. “That makes it a lot easier on them.”