Lynx took three distinct paths to Olympics

MINNEAPOLIS – For the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, this can seem almost formulaic.

It’s won the past four Olympic gold medals, and it’s a favorite to take home a fifth. It’s populated with WNBA stars, the biggest names in a growing league who receive a surge in attention for a few weeks every fourth summer. Win, fade, repeat.

But even if the women win again this year, even if the pattern continues, it seems silly to ignore the distinctions. Gone are the names that dominated the early years of the WNBA; Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes are no longer headlining the Olympic roster. The teams are different, too. In 2008, there were three Sparks players, in 2004, two each from the Comets and Shock.

In 2012, it’s the Lynx’s turn. No WNBA team but Minnesota boasts three players on the Olympic roster, and in 2008, the team sent just one Olympian, Seimone Augustus. That’s quite the coup for Cheryl Reeve and her team, which before its 2011 championship hadn’t finished with a winning record since 2004.

So now we’re tempted to simplify that, too. We look at the dramatic arc of the Lynx over the past two years, and we see the Olympics as the crowning moment. Who wouldn’t? But there’s a downside to that view. Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen become simply the Lynx Olympians. We talk about what this says about the team, what it means for the team. We look at this as if it were a collective experience, when really, this is three honors, three validations of hard work, three sets of unique circumstances.

Be proud of the Lynx, but be prouder of these three women.

“It’s a testament to those three players,” Reeve said. “Each of them in their own way had their own path to get there. Like Seimone’s return to the national team, that’s exciting. It’s Linday’s first time to compete for a gold; I know she’s just giddy. She’s just beside herself. Maya, for her, it’s a foregone conclusion in many ways.”

Augustus, a 28-year-old shooting guard, is the only one of the three players who has competed on an Olympic team. She won a gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, but her selection to the 2012 team was anything but certain. After being a mainstay on the national team since the 2006 FIBA Championships, Augustus was not on the 2010 FIBA squad due to the injuries she suffered in 2009 and 2010, when she tore her ACL and then had surgery to remove fibroid tumors. For Augustus, this is no repetition. This is no given. This is a new beginning, a confirmation that after six years in the league and myriad struggles, she’s still one of the country’s top players.

Whalen, at 30, is the oldest of the trifecta, yet the point guard’s breakout didn’t come until most recently. These are her first Olympics, and the normally stoic Whalen is beside herself. She’s already achieved one goal, returning to her hometown team to play, and now this, an Olympic berth – who wouldn’t be pleased? For Whalen, this is a chance to be wide-eyed after nine seasons in the league. It’s about patriotism and talent and realizing dreams that she never imagined she might.

And then there’s Moore, the foregone conclusion. There are so few players whose coaches could admit that an Olympic selection at age 23 is a foregone conclusion without making them seem like pompous jerks, but Moore is one of them. The high-scoring forward possesses the kind of natural talent and poise that creates celebrity without trying. She’s never been to the Olympics, but there’s no way she hasn’t imagined this for years. She’ll be playing for her UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, with players who watched her college career with an unprecedented scrutiny. She’ll take it in stride, just as she did winning national championships, being the No. 1 overall draft pick and her first WNBA title. An Olympic berth and gold medal seem the logical next step.

These are three women on a team of 12. Each was selected because of her individual achievements and the belief that she’d fit well with the other 11. Each will bring something entirely different. Each will adjust differently to London, to the pressure and the jetlag and the other innumerable challenges that are to come.

They happen to play on the same team. They happen to be the reigning champions. But to lump them together would be to ignore what makes them special. It would erase the character of the Lynx, a team whose stars range from a former No. 1 overall pick just now experiencing team success to a reticent hometown star to a circumspect 23-year-old phenom.

After the Lynx’s final game before the Olympic break, in which Moore scored a franchise-record 19 second-quarter points on her way to a 28-point afternoon, the team gathered for a party in its locker room. A giant cake took up the majority of the center of the space, and the women milled around it. Moore sat by her locker, surrounded by the cameras and scrum of reporters as she has so many times before. Augustus stood to the side, her lanky, lean frame taking up only a sliver of the coveted space. Whalen lurked in the entryway, taking it all in.

Each woman went about her business by herself, fielding questions, eating, watching as the portion of the icing with Whalen’s name was quickly sliced away. This was their celebration, but it wasn’t a time for them to stand in the center of the room and hold hands, to wear matching sweatpants and act in unison. Being lumped together into a unit isn’t what got them to where they are, and their individual talents will bring them their best chance at gold.

That afternoon, they weren’t just the Olympians. They were Seimone, Maya and Lindsay, three Olympians, three women, three different success stories. It was as it should be.

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