Summer Sixteen

Are we security now?

We’re all sitting in the Team USA section of the holding area next to Maracanã Stadium, waiting to be ushered in as part of the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Rio. Every country is grouped in the order in which they’ll be introduced, and Team USA is rolling deep. It’s the only time during the Games that so many U.S. athletes will be together, let alone so many Olympic athletes.

Michael Phelps is the biggest celebrity here. Slowly but surely people in the area — fellow U.S. athletes, Olympic staff, athletes from other countries — start to spot him and make their way over to get a picture. He smiles and obliges. He’s used to this. The Olympics are his home court, no matter the host city.

My teammates Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen are sitting nearby; they’re watching as people, one by one, walk up to him. I see them stand up and take the seats right behind Michael.

What are they doing?

They position themselves right behind him and form a human wall. If anyone wants a picture, they’ll have to go through the three of them. “We got you,” they tell him.

“Appreciate it,” he says, laughing.

Are we security now?

I quickly fall in line to join the security team.

We’d arrived in Rio with the men’s basketball team just a couple of days earlier.  The first few hours of our flight from Houston were not your normal in-flight experience. Music was blasting. Brittney Griner and Angel McCoughtry were playing cards with the guys. Some of the first-timers on the men’s team were chatting up Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

Me? I fell asleep.

If it were possible to medal in sleeping on planes, I’d win gold.

Both U.S. basketball teams were staying on the same ship, docked near the Guanabara Bay. Everyone asks about the ship. On the outside, it looked like a typical cruise liner — multiple rows of windows, stacked one atop the other, ascending to an open deck at the top. The décor on the inside was elegantly European with sport-themed, modern art canvasing the walls of the entrance. The slot machines on the fourth floor had been moved to make room for our training equipment.

We shared the same wing of the fifth floor with the men’s team. Down the hall from us was a lounge outfitted with TVs, a Slingbox, snacks, card tables, a bar with two servers and music speakers. Security was incredibly tight. Every athlete had to swipe a key card to get on or off the ship, so that officials could track our activity. We didn’t leave the ship much, though, outside of games and Team USA obligations. If it wasn’t on the court, everything that happened in Rio happened on the ship, either on the eighth floor — the private pool deck — or in the lounge.

Including the trash talk.

A lot of crazy bets start with trash talk, especially when you’ve got a handful of elite athletes at a card table. Everything’s a competition.

Who’d win a game of one-on-one between BG and Boogie Cousins?

Started at the card table.

Details like these live in my memory — but they are nothing like the basketball itself.

This was my second Olympics, but my sixth year playing with most of my U.S. teammates; eight women on the 12-person roster I’d played alongside since 2010. And it was full of UConn alums. With Geno Auriemma as our coach, it felt like family.

There’s a lot of shuffling around at any Olympics. Plans change and you have to make adjustments on the fly. In Rio, the venues were pretty spread out and traffic was a bear. It was a challenge, especially for professional athletes grounded in routine.

But then something happens when you put on the Team USA jersey for the first time. There’s an honor and a pride in representing your country. There’s also the pressure of the world stage. The women’s team was going for a sixth straight gold medal and was expected to dominate the Games. We were standing on the shoulders of the ’96 team that started it all: Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Dawn Staley (who was on our bench as an assistant coach in Rio).

I looked around the locker room at my teammates before our first game versus Senegal. We were a team of veterans: Sue, Dee, Tamika, Syl, ’Mone, Whay. There’s so much basketball mileage on those bodies.

I thought, This could be the most talented team that any of us will ever play on.

We had to dominate.

I loved leading our pregame clap. Before each game we were held in a long hallway to wait for player introductions. I’d start the beat. Seimone, Sylvia and Angel would jump in with their own energy. We’d all get hyped to the same rhythm — even the more rhythmically challenged of us — and with a burst, rush the court.

They didn’t warn us about the bench chairs. They were really, really tall. But we had a five-foot-nine-and-under club: Coach, Sue and Whay. Us six-footers could pop up to celebrate, substitute and gather ’round for timeouts, but the five-foot-niners had to slide off or scoot to the edge of their seats for their feet to touch the ground.

We did a lot of celebrating on the sidelines: bows and arrows, locked-and-loaded cannons. Dabs. It was the details that got us hyped: Dee breaking her own Olympic three-point record (six in a single game); Whay leading fast breaks and finishing with style and strength; BG’s footwork and block parties; Elena elevating over defenders to the bucket; Syl dominating the paint and looking like her finals-MVP self; Money ’Mone with the midrange-and-float game; Stewie’s cool athleticism and range; Angel’s instinctive motor; Sue’s steady leadership despite injury; Tamika’s relentless defense leading to offense; Tina’s unstoppable off-of-one-foot fadeaway; The entire team setting a record for most assists in a game with 40.

There was a priceless satisfaction I felt when Tina and Whay flawlessly executed a play that Coach drew up coming out of a timeout. Even he celebrated.

(Coach doesn’t dab. He fist pumps.)

People think the gold medal game is the most difficult. It’s actually the semifinal game — the game to get to the gold medal game — that’s generally harder. But our team was so solid and so deep — players one through 12 — that we were ready for France.

Coach walked into the locker room before the game.

“You know who you are,” he said. He reminded us individually and collectively of our strengths.

“You’ve been here before. You know what it takes to win.”

We never looked back.

The Olympics are too precious to let up during competition. There’s no, “Ah, let’s get it next year,” if you lose. There is no next year. You’re four years older by the time the next Games come around. You don’t know where you’re going to be in your career. You don’t know if you’re going to be healthy. There’s only one team and only 12 spots. And then if you make the team, you only have eight games to win gold. Those are some slim odds.

This year, we grabbed the gold boldly.

After they put the gold around my neck, the first person I went over to in the stands was my mom.

I felt so thankful in that moment.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said.

I’m proud of what we did, too. We dominated with class and a rare selflessness.

That domination drew some criticism — the idea that we were too good.

In what other arena would that compute? Let’s put it in another context:

Say you discover an exquisite cuisine. And as time goes on, it becomes even more mind-blowing. Every single time you eat this food, it tastes better. At no point would you say, “Man, this food is so good that it’s actually bad for people. It makes the culinary world worse.”

No, you’d say, “I want more. Give me more.” And you spread the word.

Philosophically, if you have something great, why would you not want it to continue to be great, and raise the bar in hopes that other people will compete and raise their own bar? That way we all rise.

I understand an element of the argument. It’s rooted in the competitive nature of sports. A close score makes sports more exciting. If the teams are more evenly matched, it makes for an exciting storyline.

It’s probably even harder, though, to do what we have done. We’ve been doing it for so long that people think it’s a given that we are going to dominate. But plenty of things can still go wrong when you’re more talented or deeper than other teams. You can show up and not play well. You can fail to take the competition seriously. You can rely too much on history or your reputation. You can fail to play team ball. You can look sloppy.

None of that is fun to watch. And that’s not what we do.

It takes more focus — and a deep appreciation of your teammates, the game and the fans — to continue to push yourself. Despite the score. Despite the competition.

It’s not easy to do. We represented our country not just by winning it all but by playing beautiful basketball.

This team will go down as one of the greatest sports dynasties — of all time.