HOUSTON — Breanna Stewart remembers sitting in front of her grandmother’s TV, watching Team USA win men’s and women’s basketball gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
The idea of one day becoming an Olympian herself didn’t start until a year later, when a 14-year-old Stewart joined USA Basketball’s U16 team.
“I couldn’t have pictured that (in 2008),” Stewart said Tuesday in Houston after Team USA’s final practice before leaving for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. “Getting into the (USA Basketball) system made me kind of realize one day maybe I could become an Olympian.”
Stewart joins Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne as Team USA’s three first-time Olympians hoping to help the Americans win a record sixth straight gold medal.
“I think it’s not so much pressure (to win another gold), it’s what we expect of ourselves,” Stewart said. “Playing USA Basketball at every single level, I know our goal is always a gold medal.”
The first-time trio also played on the U.S. national team’s 2015 European tour, and Griner and Stewart were members of the 2014 FIBA World Championship team that qualified for these Games with a gold medal.
In addition to their experience with USA Basketball, all three first-timers were standout college players and are in the early parts of successful WNBA careers.
“The young guys are already starting to understand that you just have to do your part,” said coach Geno Auriemma, who coached Stewart at Connecticut and led Team USA to gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “You don’t have to do anything special; just do your part and everybody else will do their part.
“Sometimes on their own teams, there’s a pressure to do everything, so the beauty of this they only have to do their part and enjoy it.”
That’s been the message since Team USA started practicing on July 23. Through four exhibitions and a week’s worth of practices, Auriemma and the veteran players have stressed focusing on the goal and enjoying the Olympic opportunity.
“They tell me to take it in,” Griner said. “Don’t let it go by real quick because it will go by quick.”
Griner was happy to be in her hometown of Houston before heading to Rio to represent her country.
“I come from a household of law enforcement and military,” she said. “My dad was a Marine, (and) I wanted to enlist and follow my dad’s footsteps. I got into basketball and went down a different road. Now I’m able to play for my country and it mean’s everything to me.”
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Griner also wants to continue the legacy of U.S. Olympic women’s basketball teams, which have won 41 straight games in Olympic competition — a streak dating to 1992 — and seven overall gold medals, including the last five.
“I don’t look at it as pressure to win gold again,” Griner said. “More I don’t want to let down the players that have set the standard, set the bar of how USA Basketball is supposed to go.
“We’re all here, we all come together to make each other better so we can go do what we need to do. We really do want the lady next to us to get better.”
Team USA is full of talent — including the past five MVPs of the WNBA Finals and the reigning league MVP in Delle Donne — and the team’s chemistry has come together during four exhibition wins.
“You look to your left and to your right and you’re playing with the best players in the world,” Stewart said. “Knowing a certain person is going to be here on defense or here on offense and where people like to get the ball — it’s been a lot of fun (building that chemistry).”
With such a strong offensive potential, Auriemma has asked his players to contribute in other ways every time they’re on the court.
“The pressure isn’t on scoring,” Delle Donne said. “We have to play great defense, and that’s something we’ve been working on every day. There are so many incredible players, each night someone new might step up and have the hot hand and we’ll ride them for as long as they’re hot.
“It’s not about who’s making the baskets. In the end it’s about getting a gold medal.”