A multiple gold medal-winning mainstay of U.S. basketball
Tamika Catchings won gold at each of the four Olympic Games she appeared at between Athens 2004 and Rio 2016, as did her team-mates Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. A key player in all the teams she graced and a loyal servant of her national team for 14 years, Catchings is an undisputed legend of women’s basketball.
Born on 21 July 1979 in Stratford, New Jersey, Catchings is the daughter of Harvey Catchings, who played for four NBA teams between 1974 and 1985. As a child she had to cope with hearing and speech impediments and had to wear a hearing aid. Teased by her schoolmates, she would often go home in tears. “At some point in elementary school, I realized something,” she said. “My peers could say whatever they wanted to about my disability, but if I worked hard enough, I could be better than them at something – maybe I had an advantage after all. My father played in the NBA for 11 years and he passed some of that athleticism onto my siblings and me.”
Devoted to the game
“That’s why basketball came into my life. I knew that if I practised and got really, really good, people couldn’t make fun of me. So I practised and practised and practised, and that’s where the passion came from.” Catchings shone on the courts in her high-school years and with the Tennessee Lady Volunteers in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women’s basketball competition. A turning point in her career came when she was training with the USA junior national team in Colorado in 1996, when they received a surprise visit from the players who had just won Olympic gold at the Atlanta Games that year. “It was like the greatest moment. I was like: ‘I want to be them. I want to be on that team someday’,” recalled Catchings.
The Olympic adventure begins
In 2001 she was drafted by WNBA franchise Indiana Fever, where she would spend her entire career. The following year, the power forward – who is 1.88m tall and weighs 76kg – made her international debut for the USA at the World Championships in China, where the Americans beat Russia 79-74 in the final. Forming part of an exciting new generation of players, along with Bird and Taurasi, Catchings made the USA squad for Athens 2004, where she teamed up with a cohort of more experienced performers. “My biggest role with that team was defense,” she 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.” The Americans were in a class of their own in the Greek capital, winning all of their matches en route to the final, where they defeated Australia 74-63, giving Catchings the first Olympic gold medal of her career.
Two out of two
Described by some as “the face of the Indiana Fever”, Catchings would appear in 10 WNBA All-Star Games, more than any other player, while she also ranks first in career playoff rebounds and scoring and in career steals. In 2006, she suffered her only defeat with the USA team as they went down to Russia in the semi-finals of the World Championships in Brazil. Catchings then came back from injury to make Beijing 2008, where she came off the bench to average 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game en route to winning a second Olympic gold, sealed with another win over Australia, the scoreline this time reading 92-65.
A year to remember
Described by all her team-mates as “the player you want to have on your team,” Catchings won another world title with the USA in 2010 and was named MVP of the 2011 WNBA season before reaching the very peak of her career the following year. At London 2012 she formed part of the starting five in a team that swept all before it, leading the way in rebounds and steals as the USA retained their title, sealed with an 86-50 defeat of France in the final. “She just plays harder than everybody else,” said Geno Auriemma, her Olympic coach that year. “She competes harder. I’ve always admired that in her.” Catchings ended a glorious year on a high, picking up the WNBA Finals MVP award as the Indiana Fever beat the Minnesota Lynx to land the title.
Four and out
“This is her fourth time, and she’s still good enough to be a contributor,” said Auriemma in naming a 37-year-old Catchings in his squad for Rio 2016. And contribute she did as the Americans marched to another gold in Brazil, clinched with a 101-72 win over Spain in the final. Like Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie before her, Catchings, Bird and Taurasi celebrated their fourth straight Olympic title in Brazil. Deciding to go out on the highest of highs, the veteran Catchings then announced her retirement. “I want to be remembered on the court for the passion that I play with, and for the love that I have of the game and the way I play: 110 percent, all day, every day,” she said. “And I love it. And the smiles that I play with. Off the court I only want to be remembered for changing lives, for impacting people, for making a difference in their lives. A lot of people have helped me reach my dreams and goals, and I want to be that person for them and help them reach theirs.”