Lisa Leslie and the United States women's basketball team have dominated the last three Olympics, taking home gold each time. But a gold medal in Beijing is no sure thing with the Americans short on team training and the rest of the world catching up.
In the past few Olympics it wasn't a question of whether the United States would win a gold medal, it was how wide the margin of victory would be. The Americans went 8-0 in the 2004 Olympics, winning by an average of nearly 24 points a game. They beat Australia 74-63 to win the gold.
Already, however, the Beijing Olympics have been a bit more challenging for the Americans' preparation. With athletes playing overseas in the winter and with the WNBA in the summer, it has been tough to get everyone together. All 12 members of the team won't be together until the end of July, when the U.S. holds a training session right before the Summer Games.
"We definitely are the underdogs in terms of preparation. What we have going is tremendously talented athletes who are very hungry," United States coach Anne Donovan said.
The U.S. has been forced to go with a piecemeal training philosophy, holding different training camps and tours over the last two years to help the selection committee choose from a pool of 29 players.
Joining Leslie on the team are three-time Olympian Katie Smith, and 2004 gold medalists Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Tina Thompson. DeLisha Milton-Jones earned a gold medal in 2000 but missed the Athens Olympics with an injury. The Americans also have many newcomers in Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter and Kara Lawson.
The U.S. team is in a transition period with longtime stars Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes gone. Staley will still be on the sidelines, but now as an assistant coach. Having so many new players doesn't worry Donovan.
"It's such a great mixture of Olympic gold medalists with some really tremendous young talent," the coach said. "I love the combination of players that we have."
Parker got a taste of the international stage in the 2006 world championships when she was a college sophomore. She was thrown into the spotlight when Leslie missed the worlds because her uncle had been paralyzed in a car accident.
The U.S. ended up taking a bronze after losing to Russia in the semifinals, its first loss in major international competition since 1994. Australia won the gold.
"Looking back at the world championship our loss has stuck with everyone," Bird said. "I think we have a lot to prove."
"It definitely made us mad," she said with a smile. "We're the underdogs as Australia is the world champions, and they have all the pressure on them."
Donovan hopes the team's hunger for a medal helps them focus and get past the difficult training schedule.
"The commitment of the players is to get a gold medal in August, so we have to make the most of the two weeks we have for the preparation," she said.
Although the Americans would love another crack at the Russians to avenge the world championship loss, the two teams wouldn't meet until the quarterfinals at the earliest. An added level of intrigue has arisen for that potential matchup with Becky Hammon -- one of the WNBA's most popular players -- playing for the Russian team.
The South Dakota born star became a Russian citizen and under FIBA rules is allowed to compete for them. A national team participating in an international competition of FIBA may have only one player who has acquired the legal nationality of that country by naturalization or by any other means.
"That's un-American" Leslie said when she first heard of Hammon's decision.
However, most of the players have been supportive of her choice, knowing a potential financial windfall played a big factor in her decision. Hammon would earn $100,000 if she attends the Russian training camp and another $100,000 if they win the gold medal.
Other potential obstacles for the U.S. could come from Australia, which is led by WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson, and a vastly improving host China. The Chinese beat a short-handed U.S. team in a pre-Olympic test event in April.
"I think that China, playing in China as the host country, with as much work and training and money they've put into their team, they're excited and will be tough," Smith said.
"Being the home country you might as well spot them 10 (points) because teams always play better at home. I think they're going to be a force to reckon with."
China is the only one of the top teams in the same pool as the U.S. The Americans also will face Mali, New Zealand, Spain, and the Czech Republic in the preliminary round.
Brazil, Korea, Latvia and Belarus join Australia and Russia in the other pool.
Leslie will be trying for an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal. Only Teresa Edwards has won four Olympic golds, but they were sandwiched around a bronze medal in 1992.
"It's about gold," Leslie said. "I know what it takes."