The Olympic version of Father Time is watching Tamika Catchings.
The 33-year-old Catchings, who was Ms. Illinois Basketball in 1995 as a sophomore at Stevenson High School and has gone on to WNBA stardom with the Indiana Fever, is playing on her third Olympics team. After London, she knows there won't be a fourth go-round. She'll be 37 and may have already ridden off into retirement by then. So you better believe she won't settle for anything less this time than what she's used to.
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Catchings is 2-for-2 in gold medals. She helped the United States to Olympic championships in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008.
"This is my last run," Catchings said. "So I feel like we have to play at a high level. It would be a letdown if we didn't win it."
Expectations are always high for the U.S. women.
This team, which includes Sky players Sylvia Fowles and Swin Cash and well as former Naperville Central star Candace Parker, is going for its seventh gold medal in the last eight Olympic Games and its fifth straight. Almost Dream Team-esque in its success, this team just doesn't lose, or get challenged, very often.
"There is the pressure to be the best," said Catchings, who is expecting nearly her entire family to join her in London. "Everyone expects us to win the gold every single time. I understand that, and the coaches do a good job of trying to diffuse that pressure. For us (players), it's just a matter of staying focused."
Whatever expectation, that isn't easy for any Olympian.
Catchings is as enamored today as when she first saw her name on a USA jersey.
"It never stops being amazing," Catchings said. "Every single time I put on my Olympic jersey, it's like 'Wow, I can't believe I have the opportunity to represent my country and do something so great.' It's just so cool."
No tourist trap:
This trip to London is the first for Sky center Sylvia Fowles, who insists her previous stop doesn't count.
"It was just through the airport," Fowles said. "That's it. I really haven't seen London."
Not that Fowles is going to be seeing many places this time. She packed far more business clothes than leisure.
"I know I'll have to do some sightseeing, but I'm not going to do much," said Fowles who is averaging a double-double (18 ppg, 12 rpg) for the Sky. "I want to have fun, but at the same time, I don't want to lose track of what I'm there for.
"It would be very disappointing not to win the gold. We're not there to get anything less than that."
Once Fowles' job is done in London, she'll be asked to transition quickly into Sky mode. That was a challenge with the 2008 Olympics.
"It's just about trying to keep everything straight," Fowles said. "I remember getting back to Chicago from Beijing and getting plays mixed up because something (with the Sky) seemed similar. I would be running USA plays and that wasn't it. That was the hardest part for me."
Speaking of difficult, winning Olympic gold might be expected for the Americans, but it won't be a cake walk. Australia and Russia will put up a stiff fight.
"It's not going to be some easy party for us," Fowles said. "Everyone steps up when they play us.
"We have to be ready for whatever a team throws at us and we need to handle our business."
After a bumpy start with the Sky, Swin Cash hopes that putting on a USA uniform will help get her groove back.
Cash will reunite with her college coach, Geno Auriemma, and he's always coaxed the best out of her.
Auriemma, who won two NCAA titles with Cash at Connecticut, is the head coach of Team USA. Cash joined the Sky in January in a much-hyped trade. She is averaging about 10 ppg, but isn't shooting the ball well, and has been prone to turnovers.
"He shaped me a lot," Cash. "He demanded perfection. That was the goal, even though you knew it would never be totally perfect.
"I'm looking forward to playing for him again and playing with players at such a high level. It's tough (to put the first half of the WNBA season behind). It's been a struggle. But I'm hoping that going to the Olympics and playing at that level will help me figure out what I can do better as a player so that I can come back to Chicago and play the way I know I can play."
Like Catchings, Cash will be making her last go-round with USA Basketball. She was on the team in 2004, but missed the cut in 2008.
"I did everything the last three years that I needed to do to show that I could make the team again," Cash said. "I'm so honored and blessed to be able to be on this team and I always said this would be my last go around. So I'm just going to enjoy it."
This and that:
DePaul head coach Doug Bruno is one of Auriemma's assistants, and the U.S. women open with Croatia Saturday. … The WNBA will be heavily represented in London with as many as 38 current and former players on Olympic rosters. Nine of 12 countries feature a current or former WNBA player on their roster. All 12 players on the U.S. roster play in the WNBA.
• Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Chicago Sky since its inaugural season in 2006. She is the color analyst for all Sky television games on Comcast CN100.