Olympic celebration comes home for Lynx

MINNEAPOLIS – Next Tuesday, the Minnesota Lynx will travel to Seattle to face the Storm, their Western Conference rivals who sit six games back as the season resumes.

By then, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen will be back to business as usual, 10 days removed from winning their Olympic gold medals in London. When they take the court that night in Seattle, though, there will be one reminder of the month-long experience from which the three just returned: Olympic teammate Sue Bird.

Bird will be the first of many former Olympic teammates the Lynx will face in the season’s final month. Augustus, Whalen and Moore will play against seven of the other nine members of Team USA, all except the Sun’s Asjha Jones and Tina Charles, before the playoffs even begin; Minnesota could very well face Jones and Charles in the postseason. And despite the hours spent together in London on buses, in dining halls and wearing the same uniforms, somehow the Lynx’s Olympians will reduce those women back to nothing more than opponents when the time comes.

Those shifting relationships are at once the most interesting part of the Olympics’ aftermath and the saddest. At the Games, the women spent nearly all their time together each day for weeks. It was an experience more like college than professional sports, Augustus said. Instead of going to practice, going home and not seeing teammates until the next day, which is the typical WNBA routine, the members of Team USA shared everything, from embarrassing iPod music to housing. When they went home, it was with their teammates in tow.

They built new relationships and renewed old ones, learned from one another and had fun, all while winning yet another gold medal for the U.S. women’s basketball team.

And then, after all that, the 12 teammates will return to the United States, take the court, and pretend that those friendships don’t matter.

“Game faces back on,” Augustus said. “It was fun when we were together and we were teammates, and now we’re back to competition. We’re competitors.”

Of course that’s the case. But these are people, not machines, with relationships and shared experiences and gold medals that they won together, and that makes what they do all the more impressive – and a tiny bit sad.

That, too, is why the Lynx are so special. They get to preserve those relationships, to bring them back to Minneapolis, to sit at a press conference like the one they had Wednesday and be unable to contain their inside jokes and laughter. They’re something of a three-woman comedy group at times, with timing and cadence that come only from hours upon hours together. When Augustus, the two-time Olympian, would rather not answer a question, she cocks her head toward Whalen. When Whalen would rather not reply, she turns to Moore — the veteran to the second-year star — and Moore, no matter her celebrity, smiles and answers.

They’re more than teammates, more than friends, something approaching sisters after going through a championship season and now an Olympic gold medal run together. That closeness shows on and off the court; Whalen said that even during the Olympics the three could feel their connection while playing, and it definitely helped them compete well as a unit.

“We got a lot of opportunities to play on the court together, and I think people kind of understood why we’re one of the best teams in the league,” Augustus added.

An experience like theirs at the Olympics can only bring the three women closer, and that’s bound to help the Lynx as they enter the most important stretch of their season. They’re just one game ahead of Los Angeles in the Western Conference standings, and their 15-4 record ties them with Connecticut for the best in the league. It’s time for the Lynx to refocus after their month without games, and the Olympians know that as well as anyone.

“It is a quick turnaround, and we do have to make sure that we stay mentally ready, emotionally ready, physically ready,” Moore said. “But we’ve realized what … a special group we have. We enjoy every day.”

A whirlwind trip to London and an Olympic gold medal aren’t going to distract Augustus, Moore and Whalen from the task at hand. In fact, it’s hard to even liken the experience of Olympic play to WNBA competition, Moore said, and that makes it all the easier to get back to business in Minnesota.

“You can’t really compare anything to the Olympics just because it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime (experience) as far as you’re playing with the best in the world,” Moore said. “But as far as a league goes, this is the most competitive league in the world (and) … nothing can be more satisfying than to win a WNBA championship, which is what all of us are going for.”

And so the grind begins again, on a different continent and against a different crop of opponents. The Olympians will ease their way back into the routine of the Lynx, refreshing themselves on plays and skills and playing starters’ minutes. Gold medals or not, there’s no rest allowed, and the three Olympians are now focused on their championship hunt, a little tired, a little jetlagged, but ready.

“This is the life of a woman’s basketball player, and we take it by the horns and push forward,” Augustus said.

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