published Monday, February 25th, 2013

Wiedmer: Catchings great catch for FCA

Viewed from afar, without the gory details that almost always burden one's real life, Tamika Catchings appears to have led an almost perfect existence during her 33 years on Mother Earth.

Daughter of longtime NBA forward Harvey Catchings, she lived a childhood of relative economic privilege. Upon signing a women's basketball scholarship with Tennessee, she became a four-time All-American, was voted Rookie of the Year for her first professional season delayed by a knee injury and was the WNBA MVP in 2011.

She's also won three Olympic gold medals, the third coming last summer in London.

No wonder in announcing that Catchings will speak to the FCA's Road to Victory banquet on March 5, area FCA director Jay Fowler said, "We are thrilled to have one of the best women's basketball players in the world coming to Chattanooga. ... We think this is a tremendous opportunity for girls' basketball players and coaches from all over the Tennessee Valley to see and hear Tamika and learn how she was able to reach the pinnacle of her sport."

And it should be quite an event, along with the basketball clinic Catchings will conduct earlier that day at the Chattanooga Convention Center, which is open to girls from any area middle school, high school, recreational league, Upward or AAU team. The first 300 registering receive FCA bags filled with special goodies. The clinic is free but attendees must register by this Friday by calling 423-877-3561.

But great as Catchings' career has been, it was the obstacles she faced early in her life that should most inspire anyone who hears her FCA talk.

"I was like anyone when I was young. I just wanted to fit in," she said last week. "Athletics gave me an avenue to feel normal."

She didn't feel normal for much of her young life because she had, in her words, "moderately severe hearing loss in both of my ears. To this day I cannot here certain tones and pitches -- even in my voice -- but it was worse growing up."

In a blog last fall she vividly and painfully recalled those times, writing:

"Kids can be cruel. I spent years in speech therapy and had to wear large hearing aids all the time. I remember coming home from school crying to my parents that I did not want to go back the next day, but every time I would, they would wipe my tears and tell me the next day would be better. They pushed me back time and time and taught me to try my hardest at everything."

Later, she wrote: "At some point in elementary school I realized something. My peers could say whatever they wanted to about my disability, but if I worked hard enough, I could be better than them at something -- my father played in the NBA for 11 years and he passed some of that athleticism onto my siblings and me."

It would be great to say that the rest was history, that Catchings' outrageous basketball skills instantly made her as popular as Coca-Cola with her peers, that a smile has been frozen on her face from the seventh grade forward.

But real life doesn't work that way. About the time her athletic talents began to blossom, her parents divorced, forcing Catchings to move from Chicago to Texas to live with her mother.

Yet through it all, she not only pressed on with sports but also held tight to her faith, determined to see life's bright and hopeful side.

"Having Christ in my life is truly who I am," she said. "When I was young, my parents would say, 'If you don't go to church, you can't do anything [outside the home] the rest of the week.' So I was exposed to Christ at an early age.

"But when I got to Tennessee I started going to Bible study on campus. Coming to the Lord is certainly what's drawn me to events like the FCA banquet."

She is drawn to success like almost no one in the history of basketball -- man or woman -- capturing not only every major on-court honor and trophy imaginable but also the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for her charity's work.

And now that she was the WNBA Finals MVP as the Indiana Fever just won the franchise's first title this past season, there's no reason to believe she's necessarily near the end of her athletic accomplishments. Especially since she just returned from China, where she didn't win a title but did earn some pretty good coin.

"The basketball's not that bad, and the money's pretty good," said Catchings, who made sure to return to the States in time to see UT hoist Pat Summitt's banner to the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters in late January.

She's also still having a pretty good time playing, noting, "I've still got that passion. We're still pioneers in the WNBA."

In a sense, as we learned again this weekend with Danica Patrick's accomplishments at Daytona, all women in sports remain pioneers. Some just overcome more obstacles along the way than others.

Or as Catchings blogged last fall: "I don't think of my hearing loss as a disability anymore. I hope that my story can help inspire tomorrow's all-stars in sports, business and philanthropy to really go out and 'Catch' their stars."

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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