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Tamika Catchings takes basketball wisdom to Abu Dhabi

December 15th, 2014 by Brian Canever in Envoys

Stepping on a plane for a 7,000 mile trip from her home in Indiana to the other side of the world isn’t all that uncommon for former Tennessee Lady Vol Tamika Catchings.

On top of her time as a forward for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, Catchings has spent a sizeable chunk of her 14-year professional basketball career playing in front of packed crowds from Poland to South Korea, and won Olympic gold medals in Athens, Beijing and London.

In November, Catchings settled in for another long plane ride after she was commissioned by the U.S. Department of State’s SportsUnited division as a Sports Envoy to travel to Abu Dhabi, where she served as a panelist for the Embracing Sports in the UAE: Building Domestically, Expanding Globally conference.

“It was definitely an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” said Catchings, who also traveled as a Sports Envoy to Bangkok with Connecticut Sun forward Ebony Hoffman in 2013.

Tamika Catchings with fellow panelists for the Embracing Sports in the UAE: Building Domestically, Expanding Globally conference in Abu Dhabi

Tamika Catchings with fellow panelists for the Embracing Sports in the UAE: Building Domestically, Expanding Globally conference in Abu Dhabi

The eight-time WNBA All-Star spoke to audiences at NYU Abu Dhabi about the significant progress of women’s sport in the U.S. since her childhood. Catchings was joined on the panel by Zahra Lari, an 18-year-old figure skater competing to become the UAE’s first Olympic representative in the sport, and seven-time U.S. national champion luger Cameron Myler.

During her turn at the podium, Catchings discussed the key role Title IX has played over the past forty years in providing female athletes the opportunity to compete at the same level as men in the U.S. Catchings believes a joint effort between government leaders, national sports governing bodies and local non-profits has allowed leagues such as the WNBA to achieve success and hopes for the same in the UAE.

“Title IX was a huge deal for women in America and right now there’s not anything similar in the UAE,” Catchings said. “A lot of their work is grassroots like it was for us when we started out. But we’ve really come a long way with the WNBA, and it’s been amazing to think back to the beginning when nobody thought we would make it.”

Catchings is driven by opportunities to combine her passion for basketball with humanitarian work. After she was drafted by the Fever in 2001, she immediately met with the team’s community relations director to discuss how she could help underserved children in Indianapolis. Three years later, she founded the Catch the Stars Foundation, which has awarded 22 scholarships worth over 100,000 dollars to scholar athletes from the area, and impacted over 1,500 kids through literacy, fitness and mentoring programs.

Tamika Catchings at a basketball practice for the NYU Abu Dhabi's women's basketball team

Tamika Catchings at a basketball practice for the NYU Abu Dhabi women’s basketball team

Catching credits her deep faith, the values she learned from her father, former NBA center Harvey Catchings, and learning to live with long-term hearing problems for her commitment to make a difference in the lives of young people.

“I want to give kids the hope that if they want to play basketball or have a hearing problem they can look to me as an example. They can say, ‘Tamika Catchings has the same thing and she’s doing it, so why can’t I?’”

Two months ago, Catchings announced her retirement from basketball after the 2016 WNBA season, closing the curtain on a historic career. She is one of eight players to win a World Championship gold medal, Olympic gold medal, NCAA title and WNBA championship, and the only five-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.

She plans to win whatever titles remain before retirement, including the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and looks forward to more opportunities like the Abu Dhabi envoy trip in the future.

“The trip to Abu Dhabi was overall an amazing experience. You never know, there may be a trip in two weeks and I’ll get an email about it today. I always plan to be an ambassador for the WNBA and for women’s basketball.”