August 17, 2021
Inside Ariel Atkins’ Olympic experience with Team USA
There was a gold medal, of course, but also midnight phone calls, lessons from veterans and birthday celebrations
“I don’t know if I can do it,” she kept telling Hines-Allen. “Just hold off on it right now.”
Hines-Allen reluctantly waited to book the trip, knowing airline prices would likely increase. But it ended up being the right move because Atkins had to decline the vacation.
“I’m like, ‘This better be a good reason why,’” Hines-Allen recalled. “And she’s like, ‘I just made the Olympic team.’”
Atkins, a then-24-year-old in just her fourth WNBA season, was officially named to her first U.S. Olympic team on June 21, alongside some players whose posters once dotted her bedroom wall. Part of her couldn’t believe how far she’d come from that girl hanging up posters.
“The list of women that have gone through this system … is the best of the best,” Atkins said on July 13, just before Team USA started its pre-Olympics exhibition play in Las Vegas. “And that’s not just on the court. Off the court, they’re awesome women as well. So to be a part of that and to have my name on that list now is, it’s surreal. But we’re here and I’ve got to put some of that aside and get to work.”
Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller, who was part of the committee that selected the Olympic team, indicated that Atkins was chosen for her ability to make 3-pointers, defend at an elite level and play multiple guard positions. Atkins is a career 37.6 percent 3-point shooter in the WNBA and has made the All-Defensive Second Team three years in a row. Last month, Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault likened her defense to that of a free safety in football because she excels at deflecting passes, is always in good help position and adeptly guards bigger or smaller players.
During exhibition play, Atkins’ USA teammates and coaches also praised her professionalism and unflappable demeanor, even as Team USA suffered two upsets and the coaching staff experimented with lineups and player rotations. Now-five-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi called Atkins “a great teammate” and “a composed young player” who understands and leverages her strengths on the court.
Team USA head coach Dawn Staley added, “Any time her number’s called, whether it’s playing a whole lot of minutes or playing no minutes, I think she’ll approach it the same way, and that [is] what makes her pretty good about being on our Olympic team.”
For Atkins, joining Team USA felt much like her rookie season in the WNBA in 2018. In both cases, she was “the new kid on the block” trying to figure out her role and where she fit with the veterans. Just as she had with then-Mystics stars Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver, Atkins watched USA players such as Taurasi and Sue Bird, another five-time Olympic gold medalist, and tried to learn from how they approached each day and each practice.
By July 22, Atkins had found her niche on Team USA: “I think the biggest thing that I can bring to our team … is just straight energy. When I come off the bench, making sure that I’m being able to pick up [my player], probably not full-court [but] close to it, knock down the open shots, try to get us extra possessions, small stuff like that.”
In some ways, that role was a natural fit for Atkins because it was similar to her role as a Mystics rookie, when she averaged 11.3 points per game and made her first All-Defensive Team. But it also sold her skills short, as she has expanded her game considerably over the past three years and is currently averaging 17.0 points, 3.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game for the Mystics. In Tokyo, Atkins averaged just 1.8 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.4 steals in 6.7 minutes per game.
Atkins not only accepted her limited role but also was fully engaged and prepared to play, just as Staley suggested she would be. She told reporters that simulating opposing players in practice helped her learn the scouting report better, and she worked diligently to maintain her conditioning, both to be able to play more minutes if needed and to be ready to return to the WNBA.
“The competitor in me, you know, you want to be out there, but … we’re playing well,” Atkins said on July 26, the day before Team USA’s first pool play game against Nigeria. “… At the end of the day, I just want to win, and whatever way that gets it done, that’s how we’re going to get it done.”
“I’ve said this time and time again about Ariel: She’s the utmost professional,” Mystics and Team USA teammate Tina Charles said on Aug. 13. “She [is] more professional than me when I was her age—always going to get her shots up, always going to be in the weight room, does what’s asked of her, goes 150 percent, does more than what she has to, [is] always engaged with the game, says the right things at the right times, doesn’t feel sorry for herself. So… it’s always good to have Ariel.”
Charles helped mentor Atkins from the day they both were named to the Olympic team, but Charles said that Atkins was performing so well on the court that she had little to say. Instead, most of Charles’ advice was reminding Atkins to fill out the periodic forms required as part of the Olympics’ strict COVID-19 protocols.
Even with those protocols in place and almost no fans in attendance, Atkins’ first Olympics was filled with the sense of wonder that she’d tried to stifle in Las Vegas. She said she had “always dreamt of just putting on the jersey and playing,” and she stopped to take in the moment in Team USA’s first practice in Japan’s Saitama Super Arena, which was decorated with the logos of every team. But perhaps her most meaningful experience was marching in the opening ceremonies and meeting other athletes from different sports and backgrounds.
“It really just put a lot of things into perspective,” Atkins said. “… I always feel like and I say, ‘This is bigger than basketball,’ but that really was very visual for me.”
Atkins also celebrated her 25th birthday on July 30, the day that Team USA beat Japan in its second pool play game of the Olympics. She told the media after the game that she wouldn’t be having any birthday cake, but her teammates apparently decided otherwise, surprising her with dinner and cake. “That was awesome,” she said. “… To be having some people that I’ve really looked up to for a long time singing me happy birthday, that was really special.”
Atkins mixed the unforgettable moments in Tokyo with more mundane activities, as the team was largely restricted to its hotel and the basketball court. She tried to engross herself in fiction books, listened to music and called her parents daily. She also fielded frequent calls and texts from her Mystics teammates—though most came in the middle of the night. “They always call me when I’m asleep,” Atkins said on July 26. “Specifically, Myisha has not gotten the time right yet.”
“I probably called her I don’t know how many times throughout the night,” Hines-Allen confirmed after the Olympics. One such mishap happened the night before the gold medal game in Tokyo—midday in Washington, DC—because Hines-Allen was wondering what time the game was. “So I call her and it’s pitch black in there,” Hines-Allen said. “… I’m like, ‘So what time [do] y’all play?’ She’s like, ‘In 12 hours.’ I’m like, ‘Agh! My bad, my bad. Focus—I’ll call you back later.’ But I felt bad, to be honest with you.”
Luckily, Hines-Allen’s calls didn’t disrupt Atkins’ focus—or Team USA’s march to a seventh straight gold medal. They won the gold medal game by 15 points, and Atkins chipped in two points and an offensive rebound in three minutes of play. Atkins brought her medal to her first Mystics practice post-Tokyo, and her teammates could hardly contain their excitement at what she had accomplished.
“I’m super happy for her. It’s like I won a gold medal,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said proudly.
“[It means] everything,” point guard Natasha Cloud added. “I remember when A came in as a rookie, just being able to … be her roommate, learn who she was as a person, as a human being and then as a player … She’s just a phenomenal and most genuine person, the hardest worker that I’ve ever met. And she deserves all of this, she deserves every bit of it, so to see someone that you genuinely love and care about fulfill their dream, it’s a really special moment for me.”
For Atkins, the gold medal is the culmination of all the work she has put in to become one of the best players in the world, but it also represents much more. It means a lot to her to have her last name on her jersey because of how close she is with her family and how supportive they have been throughout her career. She is also proud to represent her hometown of Duncanville, Texas, and show girls in her community that they can follow in her footsteps.
Thinking even more broadly about what her accomplishment represents, Atkins connected the gold medal—which Team USA won with a Black female head coach and nine Black players—to social justice, which she and the rest of the WNBA have championed for years.
“We all know that there is still a long way to go to see the change we want to see, but that’s why I’m grateful to be on this team,” she wrote in The Players’ Tribune during the Olympics. “… I get to again be a part of something bigger than myself. Something bigger than basketball. … You already know that it’s gold or nothing. You already know that everyone on this team is a certified bucket. And you already know we’re doing this for all of America, especially for the people in the country who look like me.”
After Tokyo, Atkins spent a few days with her family in Texas before flying to DC for the home stretch of the WNBA season. As the Mystics’ second-leading scorer behind Charles and one of their best defenders, she will have a lot on her plate—especially because the Mystics have a back-loaded schedule with 14 games in 36 days, starting with two road games against Las Vegas.
Perhaps the most pressing challenge for Atkins is getting consistent sleep to recharge her body. Besides Hines-Allen’s phone calls, Atkins struggled to adjust to Tokyo time, then was in three different U.S. time zones within a week of the gold medal game.
But wherever she is playing, Atkins wants to apply the lessons from her Olympic experience to try to take her team to another level. On July 22, she credited herself with “being a lot more adjustable than I thought” in the face of international travel and various disruptions to the team’s routine. (That ability was tested right away in the WNBA when the Mystics’ flight to Las Vegas on Aug. 13 was delayed for several hours due to weather.)
She also learned a lot about leadership in Tokyo, even though she wasn’t usually filling that role herself. She described how the older players always seemed to sense how their teammates were feeling in practice and know exactly what to say. “And it wasn’t just a bunch of like, ‘Hey, guys, come on, we can do it.’ It was very directional,” Atkins said.
As a result, Atkins wants to be “more adamant about [her] leadership,” speaking up more when she identifies areas for improvement and being less passive. Making the Olympic team flipped a switch for her in that respect. “It still feels surreal,” she said on Aug. 13, “but it … kind of forced me out of my shell in the sense that you don’t get to be passive, you don’t get to act as if you’re not capable of certain things. So you have to be more aggressive on the floor and be that person for your team when your team needs you.”
In the Mystics’ first game after the Olympic break—a one-point loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Aug. 15—Atkins seemed to show that alpha mentality. She took 20 shots, well above the 12.7 per game that she had averaged in the first half of the season, and had eight of her 20 points in the fourth quarter. “Overall, she was aggressive,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “… We put her and Tina in plays and they took Tina away, so she had the shots to take.” That included on the final possession, when Atkins narrowly missed what would have been a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I took the shot that I thought was the right shot at the time, but I’m not going to get on myself for it,” she said afterward. “If you [are] willing to make it, you’ve got to be willing to miss it, too.”
If Atkins continues to build on her Olympic experience in this way, it could have big ripple effects for her and the Mystics. One of the few critiques of her in the WNBA is that she can sometimes blend too well with her teammates, deferring to veterans and becoming a role player rather than the star that she is. The more she can assert herself, the better off the Mystics will be.
And there’s nothing like a gold medal to prove to a player that she is one of the best in the world—even if she had to sacrifice a trip to Jamaica to get there.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.