Caitlin Clark has captivated America, but is she good enough to make the USA Olympic team?

NEW YORK — Caitlin Clark has been on a whirlwind ride to the top of American sports. She spent five months breaking record after record. She lifted Iowa to a national championship game, and women’s basketball to new heights. Ever since, she’s been hopping around the country, from Los Angeles to Manhattan, “chugging Coke all night, trying to stay awake” for Saturday Night Live, then the WNBA Draft.

Now she is in Indiana. Next is the nationwide professional grind. And then … the Olympics?

“Obviously,” Clark said Wednesday, “I would love to be on the Olympic team, and be in Paris. But that’s not up to me … I actually still need to earn my degree, too; I need to graduate college first, or else my mom might kill me.”

It is up to USA Basketball, and specifically to a selection committee that will pick Team USA’s 12-woman roster sometime between now and July 7.

Clark is almost certainly the biggest name in contention, but nowhere near a lock — and her biggest complication might be the whirlwind.

“The hardest part for her, and all the other rookies, is sustaining,” Breanna Stewart said Wednesday here at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s media summit. “Because you're on this year where you're going nonstop.”

Stewart would know. She was the last WNBA rookie to make a U.S. Olympic team, in 2016; and the only one since Candace Parker in 2008. She, like Clark, had a stunning senior season, then six NCAA tournament games; she then dove head-first into the WNBA.

“[You] start right over,” Stewart explained, “and play the most games in the shortest amount of time that you've ever done in your life.” She remembers being “on this reoccurring hamster wheel.”

Eight years later, Clark is on it, and accompanied by unprecedented fanfare. Preseason camp begins next weekend, and “that, in and of itself, is life-changing,” Cheryl Reeve, who coaches the Minnesota Lynx and Team USA, said Wednesday.

It’s also only the beginning. The WNBA grind begins May 14. And nobody’s quite sure how Clark will handle it.

Caitlin Clark speaks Wednesday in Indianapolis during her introductory news conference with the Indiana Fever, who selected her No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Caitlin Clark speaks Wednesday in Indianapolis during her introductory news conference with the Indiana Fever, who selected her No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“There’s gonna be learning curves for me,” Clark acknowledged on Wednesday. “I’m not gonna come out here and score 40 points a game.”

She’ll meet longer, stronger opponents, savvier coaches, a quicker pace. “The defenses are gonna be better, the schemes are gonna be better, the defense at the rim considerably better,” Reeve said.

“I certainly think she's got the toughness to deal with all of that,” Reeve continued. “But ... I think those'll be the challenges. She might blow right through it. I don't know.”

And those challenges won’t end on the court, with navigating pick-and-roll coverages or physicality. “The difference between WNBA and college, besides the talent, is the cadence of games,” Reeve explained. It’s also the road trips to unfamiliar cities. “Every place you travel on the road is new,” Stewart said. It’s finding rhythms and simple things like meals. It’s all part of the “hamster wheel.” And all of it can be draining.

“Caitlin is used to being the one,” Reeve added. “And she'll certainly, probably, be called upon again to be the one. To do that, repeatedly, under such physically distressing situations” — that will determine the ease and speed of her WNBA transition.

It also could, by extension, determine whether she makes the 2024 Olympic team.

The selection committee will get up to 1 1/2 months — 26 games — of evidence. It could be just as relevant as four years of college exploits.

Clark is already, at the very least, on USAB’s bubble. She was one of 14 players invited to a recent national team training camp. She missed the camp, because it conflicted with the Final Four, but she is in the Olympic pool. She has USA Basketball experience at youth levels, where she won three gold medals and the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup MVP award.

Also working in her favor: there is a void at her position, one left by the retirement of legendary guard Sue Bird. And USA Basketball has a history of blending youth and experience to make generational shifts more seamless.

There are, however, no more USAB training camps between now and the July 7 roster deadline. There are other guards with WNBA and international experience. There is unmatched depth, and plenty of familiarity with Reeve’s system. “We started this thing in February 2022,” Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach after two Olympic cycles as an assistant, twice pointed out at the USOPC media event.

So there are no guarantees.

“I want to be on that team, I want to be an Olympic gold medalist one day,” Clark said. “It’d really just be a dream come true. But, everybody knows how competitive women’s basketball is in our country. So, it’ll be hard for really anybody to make that team.”