Tamika Catchings: Determined to overcome
This is the sixth piece in a seven-day series featuring US Olympians who in some way lead extraordinary lives aside from their medals and athletic talent. Check out part one on John Orozco, part two on Jake Gibb, part three on Kayla Harrison, part four on Anthony Ervin, and part five on Tim Morehouse.
When Olympic basketball player Tamika Catchings wrote about her sports journey for ESPNW in April 2011, she described her childhood like this:
“As a young child, I remember being teased for the way I looked with my big, clunky hearing aids and the speech problems that accompanied the hearing impairment. Every day was a challenge for me. There were plenty of days that I wished I was normal.”
The truth is, Catchings isn’t normal. She was a four-time All-American athlete at Tennessee. She was a six-time WNBA All-Star and a four-time Defensive Player of the Year. As if that doesn’t set her apart enough, Catchings is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist, playing again for the gold medal Saturday against France.
All of those achievements make Catchings abnormal. Surely, no “normal” woman can boast those kinds of accolades. Yet, the first thing that set Catchings apart from those around her wasn’t her elite athletic talent, it was her lack of hearing.
Catchings, now 33 years old, is well-known in the basketball world and it’s no secret that she was born with a hearing impairment that affects both ears. It was this impairment that led her first to the soccer field and later to the basketball court. While children made fun of her for being different at school, they found it hard to tease her when she was beating them at sports.
“I outworked them, plain and simple. Eventually, I was better than them,” she wrote.
Her parents changed her life drastically when they made the decision not to replace her hearing aids when, in the third grade, Catchings threw them into a field. Because of that decision, she had to adjust the way she worked to accommodate the fact that she was now functioning without full hearing. Catchings developed a top tier work ethic to make up for it, she sat in the front of her classes and read ahead in her books to assure she would always be in the loop.
It wasn’t until her time in college at Tennessee that her coach and trainer convinced her to put hearing aids back on. They saw Catchings’ potential and the goals she set for herself, and wanted her to be at her best. Now, technology has provided her with hearing aids that fit in with her athletic lifestyle, able to withstand the sweat and high impact that comes with playing basketball at the professional and Olympic level.
“I try not to look at my impairment as a disability, and it gives me a sense of appreciation when I hear stories from parents and kids — with or without disabilities — who look up to me for the struggles I’ve been through,” Catchings wrote.
Catchings started a foundation called Catch The Stars in 2004, which uses organized programs to motivate youth to set higher goals and reach their potential. Programs center around promoting literacy, fitness and mentoring.
The Olympian is setting a positive example herself, playing in her third Olympics this summer in London, proving that no circumstance is too much to overcome. Catchings doesn’t just talk to youth about dreaming big and reaching goals, she lives it.
“When I was a child I was ashamed of being different. I wanted to fit in with everyone else,” Catchings wrote. “Now that I’m older, I appreciate the way God has made me, and I love the fact that I’m able to reach out to so many people and be an inspiration.”