Tamika Catchings’ clunky hearing aids made it hard for her to find friends when she was growing up outside of Chicago in the 1980s.
Relentless teasing from bullies sometimes had her come home from primary school in tears. “All I really wanted was to be normal,” she said. In third grade, she was so fed up, she ripped off her hearing aids and threw them in a field.
“Plenty of times I wanted to give up. But my mom always pushed me back out the door, like, ‘Nope — not going to let you give up.'”
That’s what it was like before Catchings found sports. As an athlete, she out-worked all of her peers, and as she got better, the same kids who had hassled her on the playground started to choose her first for sports teams.
Today she is a superstar, playing for the Indiana Fever of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and preparing for her fourth Olympic Games. She won gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012 as a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team. Ten times the WNBA named her one of its best as part of the “all-star” team, and she was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2011.
Catchings says she got to where she is today by turning her hearing loss into a tool for focus. Playing basketball, she felt like she could anticipate her opponents’ every move: “Dealing with it on the court, it’s actually my sixth sense.”
A star is born
Catchings followed in the footsteps of her childhood heroes and her father, Harvey, who played in the professional National Basketball Association from 1974 to 1985.
Her college coach, the legendary, late Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee, saw potential beyond basketball in her superstar. She thought Catchings could be an inspiration for other kids.
When Catchings had started college in 1997, she says, “I didn’t accept my differences, and I looked at it as being something I was ashamed of.”
But Summitt said she could change the conversation. “Look, you have an opportunity to make a difference in the world,” Catchings remembers her saying.
Sharing her story, Catchings has reached thousands of kids wrestling with the effects of bullying, and her foundation, Catch the Stars, is a fixture of mentorship and literacy programs for underprivileged children in her home city, Indianapolis.
Catchings, now 36, will retire from professional basketball in 2016, and thus the Rio Olympics will be an experience to savor. “This time, I really want to enjoy it,” she said. “This is it.”
You can keep up with Tamika Catchings @Catchin24. In Rio, you can follow your favorite teams in the women’s basketball tournament from August 6 to 20.