RIO DE JANEIRO — Pop quiz: Which women’s Olympic team is the most successful of any team competing in Rio?
If you answered U.S. women’s basketball, you would be right.
Led by four-time Olympian tri-captains Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi, the U.S. women’s basketball team is a favorite to win its sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Only two other teams in Olympic history have won more than five straight gold medals: India’s field hockey team (six) in the mid-twentieth century and the U.S. men’s basketball team (seven) from 1936-1968.
And Bird, Catchings and Taurasi are not the only returning Olympic gold medalists on the team. Now three-time Olympians Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles are back for more, as are 2012 Olympic gold medalists Tina Charles, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen.
“Where we’re prepared is the mindset of having nine former Olympians, nine people who won that gold medal in London, and six of them have done it more than once; that to me is worth a lot in this venue on this stage,” said U.S. women’s head coach Geno Auriemma.
“Talent is important, I get that, and obviously the skill level is important,” Auriemma added. “But I’ve come to appreciate that at this time, during these next two weeks, experience and the ability to be smarter than the other guy is paramount.”
The U.S. women’s basketball team arrived in Rio after playing the Olympic tournament’s top teams in exhibition games. The U.S. women won all four games, beating No. 2 Australia 104-89. In the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, the U.S. met Australia in the final.
At the 2012 Games, they defeated France 86-50.
Bird said that the team clearly had the right pieces four years ago, when they defeated France for the gold medal in London. But, “now we’re four years older, better, wiser, I hope, and then we added some amazing talent, we added some incredible talent with Elena, Stewie and BG,” Bird said, referring to first-time Olympians Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart.
“We’ve added last year’s WNBA MVP, Elena Delle Donne, and we’ve added Brittney Griner, an element that we didn’t have four years ago, and a rookie, Stewie, who can do a lot of things instead of just one,” said Auriemma. “In that respect, we’re a lot stronger [than in 2012], a lot better.”
For her part, Stewart — the first woman to earn four Final Four Most Outstanding Player Awards in her years competing for the University of Connecticut (2013-2016) — credited the team’s all-star qualities.
“We have so much versatility and so much depth,” she said. “If I look to my left or to my right, I’m standing by one of the best players in the world. That could be one through 12, anyone on this team. Knowing that we’re all unselfish and we have the same motive, we want a gold medal and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get that.”
Although the U.S. women have dominated Olympic competition since the women’s basketball debuted on the Olympic program 40 years ago — going 58-3 all-time in Olympic competition and 41-0 over the past 20 years — it’s not as easy as they have made it appear.
“Contrary to what the scoreboard might tell you, it’s really not that easy,” said Bird, the most decorated world championship player in basketball history, male or female. “It can be stressful at times trying to come together with these other players and figure it out and make it work. We might make it look easy with some of the way that we play and some of the teams that we’ve dominated. But it’s really not. There’s some stress involved. With that being said, each team has its own journey, and that’s all we are focused on.”
The U.S. women’s journey begins on Sunday when they face Senegal in group play.
“I’ve been around this national team since 2009 and this is probably the most prepared team, the most anxious team that I’ve been around to actually get started and play the game,” said Auriemma. “This weekend can’t come fast enough.”