New USA Women’s National Team Training Program Means More Games and More Time Together Ahead of Olympic Games
The genesis of a fantastic idea sometimes has a strange element or circumstance.
For instance, when Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird sat down with USA Basketball’s Carol Callan and Jim Tooley to discuss a pre-Olympic training plan in a South Carolina café, there was a purple crayon involved.
The agent for the two players also was there and supplied the writing utensil usually used by her young child. It was used to scribble down details of what may become the standard training philosophy for this generation of women’s national team players.
Taurasi and Bird are among eight athletes from the USA Basketball Women’s National Team player pool who have committed to participate in all segments of a yearlong training program in preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The USA National Team has won the past six Olympic gold medals, with Taurasi and Bird key factors in the last four championships.
“We were talking about where we were at in our careers as a group, as individuals, how special Tokyo could be for us as a group,” Taurasi said. “We’ve had so much success, but can we take that to a different level? This was a pretty cool way to bring in an Olympic year in a very special way.”
Through a partnership with the WNBA and the NCAA, the USA National Team will have five training segments, two of which coincide with two competition windows that are part of FIBA’s new qualification process. During these two windows (Nov. 10-18 and Feb. 2-10), the national team will play exhibitions against top college programs before participating in Olympic Pre-Qualifying and Olympic Qualifying tournaments. The national team also will play in the FIBA AmeriCup from Sept. 22-29 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The U.S., by virtue of winning the 2018 FIBA World Cup, and host Japan already have qualified for the Olympic Games.
“One of the neat things about our national team program is the players have always taken ownership for developing the culture,” said Callan, USA Basketball Women’s National Team director. “They take pride in winning gold medals. It’s really fascinating to see. They do put a major part of their lives into it, and they’re very committed to it. They want to play well, and they want to be the best.”
WNBA players joining Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) and Bird (Seattle Storm) for all five training segments are three-time Olympic and 2010 World Cup gold medalist Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota Lynx), 2016 Olympic and 2018 World Cup gold medalist Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics), two-time World Cup gold medalist Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks) and USA National Team members Skylar Diggins-Smith (Dallas Wings) and Chelsea Gray (Los Angeles Sparks). The team is coached by University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.
“Women’s basketball just needs some visibility,” Bird said. “How it all got started was with us talking, what better way to generate hype for women’s basketball while simultaneously preparing for the Olympics than train with our national team in the year leading up? It checks all the boxes that women’s basketball needs right now.”
In addition to the three tournaments and playing exhibitions against NCAA teams — an announcement on that schedule is expected in mid-August — there will be outreach events in conjunction with the college games and other training segments to engage the fans of all ages and potential future USA National Team athletes with team members who could be playing in Tokyo next year.
“Legacy is obviously something you don’t talk about until you get old,” Bird said. “I see the connection there. Like every athlete, you want to leave the game better than when you got there, because so many people were ahead of you doing the same. You just want to continue to pay it forward, and this might be a way where we spark some things, spark some change, spark some excitement, and if that is part of our legacy with what all we’ve done on the court, I’m cool with that.”
Getting commitments from eight players was extremely important for USA Basketball for a few reasons. Among them is raising the level of play of the team as well as increasing the exposure of the national team as the Olympic Games approach. A few of the eight players are forgoing lucrative deals overseas to stay in the U.S.
“It was huge,” Taurasi said. “When you get people who are willing to commit and put (other) commitments aside for being with USA Basketball for a whole year, I think that means a lot. (It shows) how much they love their country and how proud they are to hopefully represent us in the Olympics.”
The commitments of the eight players allows the NCAA teams that the national team will be facing to market specific players who will be there instead of an uncertain roster. It also will allow for a variety of combinations that USA Basketball can analyze before making the final 12-member team roster decisions in April as it pursues a seventh straight Olympic gold medal.
“We’ll be able to use four slots to really rotate around and have a lot of our national team pool involved and a lot of opportunities to evaluate and train and prepare the rest of the pool as well,” Callan said. “It’s kind of an ongoing thing, but this gives us significant and relevant opportunities to play in games with our players, not just practice.”
While on the outside it might look like the national team doesn’t need the extra time together, Taurasi and Bird each said it will help with the cohesiveness of the roster and refining their play before heading for Tokyo. Often in preparation for the Olympics or World Cup, the team has a couple of three- or four-day minicamps and about a seven-day training camp. But with all of this time together, the team members are hoping to create a special moment in what could be the last ride at the Olympics for a few players.
“I think in general for women’s basketball it’s something that USA Basketball deserves,” Taurasi said. “They have put so much time and commitment into us, it’s kind of paying it forward a little bit with this group that has been so special.”