Lindsay Whalen leads trio of Lynx to London Games

The former Gophers star will play at her first Olympics with two Lynx teammates.

Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen plays against the Tulsa Shock on July 12 at the Target Center. Whalen, a former Gophers player, will compete in her first Olympics in London.

Mark Vancleave

Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen plays against the Tulsa Shock on July 12 at the Target Center. Whalen, a former Gophers player, will compete in her first Olympics in London.

Megan Ryan

Former Gophers and current Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen has answered the same question “a thousand times” ever since USA Basketball announced the women’s Olympic team March 30.

And after almost three months of being asked whether she’s excited to play with Lynx teammates Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus in London, her response hasn’t changed.

“They’re just great people and great teammates,” Whalen said. “So it’ll be nice to have that familiarity of having both of them there. I think we’ll be able to do some good things for the [national] team.”

The three Lynx players on the 12-woman roster for the Olympics are the most of any WNBA team. The statistic isn’t surprising, considering the Lynx are defending WNBA champions.

While the three have no trouble teaming up for the Lynx, none are consistent starters for the national team, which is packed with star power and is the heavy favorite to win gold.

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said even though the national team’s strategy will differ from that of the Lynx, her three Olympians will still have each other.

“I think of the group, you will see Maya more than Seimone or Lindsay which is a little different from what they’re used to,” Reeve said. “I hope that they have fun together and they will be on the court together. And it should feel a little bit like home for them.”

Teammates across the pond

As a point guard, Whalen has the job of setting up forwards Moore and Augustus to score. She said their relationship on the court has become instinctive.

“We play off each other really well,” Whalen said. “A lot of those back cuts, I know where [Maya’s] going to be. And she knows that, so she knows right where to go to get the basket.”

Each member of the trio has a WNBA title to her name, but only Augustus already has an Olympic gold medal from the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Augustus started on the youth national teams in 2002 when she was still in high school. She started playing on the senior circuit in 2006, the same year the Lynx drafted her.

“It’s definitely been a process for me from 2006 just going from one of the youngest players now to a vet on the team and possibly being one of the key pieces to help win a gold medal,” Augustus said.

Augustus’ advice for her teammates on how to be an Olympian? Relish the experience off the court, she said.

“The only thing I really told them is just when you do get a chance to go out and sightsee or go to other events and watch other athletes, just enjoy those moments,” Augustus said.

Moore said she plans to follow this advice. After winning two NCAA championships with Connecticut and a WNBA title with the Lynx in her rookie season, Moore said she is humbled to now have an Olympic medal within reach.

“To be able to have the opportunities that I’ve had, the timing of everything in my career, has just been such a blessing,” Moore said. “I just want to go in and make sure I’m making the most of every opportunity.”

Whalen and Moore didn’t compete in their first major international tournament until the 2010 FIBA World Championship, where the U.S. senior national team won the gold medal. But all three players are familiar with international competition.

Between the three of them, they have played for teams in the Czech Republic, Russia, Turkey and Spain during the WNBA offseason. Each said this experience will help when they play for the national team.

“Playing over in Russia, you meet a lot of the players that you’re possibly going to be playing against,” Augustus said. “We know how it’s going to be, the physical play that we’re going to endure.”

Representing Minnesota

While Moore and Augustus play professionally in the state, Whalen is the only Minnesota native.

Whalen grew up in Hutchinson, Minn., and played in high school before the Gophers recruited her. During her time with Minnesota from 2001-04, she led the team to three NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 and Final Four appearance.

“The program had been down for a long time, and she really brought a name and a national prominence to our program [and] started a tradition,” Gophers head coach Pam Borton said.

Borton started coaching Minnesota in 2002 and said she knew immediately that Whalen was talented.

“I knew right away that she was special and one of a kind,” Borton said. “I think she’s a coach’s dream to have. She makes coaching easy just because she is a coach on the floor. She knows the game extremely well. She makes things happen.”

Whalen’s professional career did not start in Minnesota, however. The Connecticut Sun drafted her in 2004, and she wasn’t traded to the Lynx until 2010. Borton said this move away from home helped Whalen grow as a player without the pressure of the community.

When the Lynx won the WNBA title in 2011, Whalen had a lot to do with it, Borton said.

“She’s the quarterback of the team,” Borton said. “Lindsay is the cornerstone of that team.”

With the start of the Olympics just days away, Whalen said she knows she represents her home.

“I think I just want to definitely take it all in,” Whalen said. “[I want to] represent the Lynx, my family, Hutchinson, the state of Minnesota. Just try to do the best I can on the court.”

Switching gears

Basketball is not a traditional Olympic sport, especially considering that most athletes competing are professionals.

Even though the Lynx won the WNBA title last year, Whalen said the Olympic gold doesn’t pale in comparison.

 “It’s huge. You’re representing your country,” Whalen said. “Any time you can play for your country, it’s really special.”

The three Lynx players face a tough challenge, however. The WNBA will take a break during the Olympics and continue with the second half of the season when the national team returns from London.

For most players, that means a month off from competition. For Whalen, Moore and Augustus, it means switching gears entirely.

After the Lynx began the season undefeated, the team suffered a three-game losing streak in early July. The team rebounded before the break with two wins over the last-place Tulsa Shock.

Augustus said playing in the Olympics won’t hinder the team from continuing its momentum over the break.

“I think it’s just a mindset,” Augustus said. “USA basketball gives you kind of a breath of fresh air, a new experience.”

Reeve said she hopes Lindsay has limited minutes in the Olympics like she did two years ago in the 2010 World Championships.

“I want the gold medal, and I want her to play and get some mojo, but I don’t want her to get overworked over there,” Reeve said. “Sue Bird [of the Seattle Storm], run her into the ground.”

Borton, however, said she thinks Whalen will spend a lot of minutes on the court.

 “I think she’s really proven herself in some of these pregames before the Olympics,” Borton said. “I think there’s going to be no hesitation whatsoever to put her in a game during the Olympics.”

In the U.S.’s five exhibition games leading up to the Olympics, Whalen led the team in points and assists.

If her statistics and the team’s perfect record in those games predict anything, it’s that Whalen is ready to play on the world’s biggest stage.

“It’s only been four and a half months now of answering questions of what I think the Olympics are going to be like,” Whalen said. “Now that it’s here, it’s a great feeling.”