Why These Olympics Hit Different For Me

·14 min read

Life is crazy. It’s funny how on a random day after practice, I was on my way to get some new sunglasses and I ended up getting one of the best calls of my life.

D.C. was getting crazy hot (and this honestly feels like the hottest D.C. has been since I’ve been here), so one pair of sunglasses — it just won’t work.

So I hop on the freeway and head out to the Nordstrom Rack — because you know they got the deals. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who calls their mom almost every time they hop in the car. It’s either some good music or a phone call with my mom, and then before I know it, I’m already at my destination.

We talked about what was going on back home, and how some of my teammates on the Mystics already had plans for the Olympic break, and how I couldn't commit to anything yet, because I was waiting on a specific call: Yes, that call.

Team USA.

Tokyo.

THE call.

Anyway, I’m telling her all these places that I might go to if I don’t make the team, and I’m trying to parallel park at the same time….

And then, outta nowhere, my car screen is pausing for a call coming in, and sure enough I see the name: Carol Callan.

Yes, THE name.

I’m like, “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (MOM, Let me CALL YOU BACK.)”

*Boop* ACCEPT.

“Hey, Carol! What’s going on?”

“Hey, Ariel. How’s it going? It’s Carol.

And in my head I’m like, CAROL, DON’T YOU WORRY, YOU KNOW I ALREADY GOT YOUR NUMBER SAVED. I MEAN, YOU’RE CAROL CALLAN.

But I kept it fairly cool.

I was like, “Hey, yeah, I have your number! I'm alright! How are you????????” (lol Y’all gotta understand I was nervous about what she was about to say, but the good thing about Carol is she always shoots it to you straight.)

She’s like, “I’ll cut straight to the chase. You made the Olympic team.”

WHAT!!!!!!!!

At this point, I’m not even forming real sentences — the only words I really remember saying are, what, wow, omg, thank you so much, wow, I really appreciate it!!!

We hang up, and all I can think is, I JUST MADE THE USA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL OLYMPIC TEAM.

THE LEGENDARY USA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL OLYMPIC TEAM.

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

I had forgotten all about the sunglasses and was just in the car losing my mind. Trying to process what just happened. I even had to remind myself this was all real — because there's no way Carol is going to call me back and say it was some kind of mix-up or something.

First person I had to call was my mom.

And of course I had to start the conversation off with, “Hey, you can’t tell nobody….” (You know how parents get excited for you and have to tell Granny, Grandma, Aunty, Uncle, all of them. And to say I have a big family is an understatement.)

“... but I made the Olympic team.”

Now my mom is like, “WHATTTT!!!!!!!!!”

Then I hear my dad screaming in the background with her.

“WHAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I couldn’t really process it. I was sitting there like, “God, you for real right now? The Olympics?”

It really hits different for me.

I mean, I still remember being in our driveway as a kid in Dallas, Texas, playing basketball with my dad, just trying to beat him every day. (At some point he started ducking me, because he knew I was coming for him.)

My bedroom back then I actually shared with my sister Jessica until she went to college. I had one specific wall in my room that was like my championship wall, covered from top to bottom with quotes, posters, NCAA eligibility stuff, and any person I ever looked up to. I’m not gonna lie to you, a few of them are now my Olympic teammates — can you guess which ones? (Sidenote: some of them were in college at the time.)

Another thing I had in there was a list of goals plastered on different parts of the room. It was really simple stuff like: WIN 2 STATE TITLES. (We got the two and should’ve had three but that’s a heartbreaking story for another time.)

I was one of those people who just played the game for the love of it — truly. I never got too far ahead of myself. True story: When me and my best friend both made varsity as freshman, she would be telling everybody we made the team and I was just like, “Don’t tell anybody yet, the season hasn’t even started, so we don't know if it's for certain.” But my best friend always had this confident swagger about her whenever it came to basketball.

I was just like, Yo!!! Can you not!!!

Like if you would’ve told me that I was going to have the opportunity to play just about anywhere in the country or make it to the WNBA, I would’ve told you to chill. Let's not get ahead of ourselves!

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Even at UT, I wasn’t ever thinking a day ahead. I was trying to survive one of the hardest times of my life — and that's not an exaggeration. I was trying to figure out how to adjust to the college game and also reach the expectations that were in front of me on the court and in the classroom. I had a lot of success at UT, but I’m most appreciative of how it prepared me to deal with all different types of people.

I experienced things at UT that a lot of other athletes experienced, too, but specifically Black and brown ones. I began to understand the history of the school, and that at big institutions you are a number, and it's up to you to make the best out of your experience and fight for your education and know your value as a human. I mean, it’s only like a 5% Black population at UT, and athletics was the majority of that.

So you can imagine how that felt.

But getting that degree from UT was one of the best moments of my life, and I still brag about it to this day because college is HARD, especially as a student-athlete.

It’s only like a 5% Black population at UT, and athletics was the majority of that. So you can imagine how that felt.Ariel Atkins

My senior year, I was being told that I had a real chance at the WNBA. But at the same time, I had ZERO knowledge of the WNBA draft process. So I drove from Austin to Dallas to be with my family. Draft day comes and I’m really not expecting to get drafted, to be honest. Some mock drafts had me as one of the last picks, or not on the board at all.

I’ll never forget, I had on a Texas pullover and some running shorts, and I was just at home with my family chilling, watching the draft. Almost like a fan would. We made a small party out of it. My grandparents were there, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all of that. My dad grilled up some wings, and mom made a seafood boil, and we even had some balloons.

I’m sitting on the floor, in front of the TV, recording everybody, because a lot of people I knew were getting drafted with the first couple of picks. I was going crazy for everybody. I was really happy for them.

Then the seventh pick comes ... and it’s like….

“The Washington Mystics select Ariel Atkins, guard, University of Texas at Austin”

WAIT!!! Nahhh.

DID THEY REALLY JUST SAY MY NAME?

MY FAMILY WENT CRAZZZZYYYYYYYY.

That was one of the best nights of my life. I got to have that moment with my mom, dad, sister, and brother. They've seen the good and bad up close and I don't get to share too many big basketball moments with them, SO THIS WAS HUGE.

Being picked seventh — the number 7, God’s number. The number of completion. Such a full-circle moment. (GOD, I HEAR YOU.)

Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/AP Photo
Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/AP Photo

Moving to D.C. was different to say the least. I was Texas through and through. That first night was horrible, I’m not gonna lie. It was a guy playing a saxophone alllllll night out in the street, so I couldn’t even sleep. I was already nervous for practice and everything! Like, come onnnnn, man!

Eventually, I got used to it, but I told y’all — all I knew was Texas. I wasn't used to that kind of action.

Anyway, I made it to practice, and then I’ll never forget my WELCOME TO THE W moment.

I was at a team dinner — and this was before I really met everybody — and Elena walks in….

I’m like, “Omg, Elena Delle Donne?”

Myisha was next to me and we’re both like, “Yo, that’s Elena Delle Donne — try and act normal. Be cool be cool.

Elena walks right up to us and gives us both a big hug....

And then she’s like, “Hey, I texted you.”

And I didn’t even say anything because I literally didn’t think she was talking to me.

She’s like, “I TEXTED you.”

I was just sitting there like, Elena Delle Donne is really asking me why I didn’t text her back????? Ariel Atkins

Looking me dead in my eyes.

And now I’m low-key freaking out. I’m like, “Really? You sure you texted me?”

She’s looking at me like, Oh, I’m sure.

I’m like, “Ohhhh, I didn’t have your number. I thought it was like spam or something, but I’ll respond next time. My fault!!!”

She’s just looking at me like, Yeah, you better save my number, rook.

I don’t usually fangirl over athletes or celebrities, but I was just sitting there like, Elena Delle Donne is really asking me why I didn’t text her back?????

……………………... I’M REALLY IN THE LEAGUE!

To look up to someone for so long and now be on their team, it’s a different feeling. And especially to be on a team with someone like E. It would be easy for her to be one of those superstars who are low-key jerks to people, but E is nothing like that, not even in the slightest. Everybody in D.C. made me feel at home instantly.

That’s why the 2019 title was so special. And that’s why that Finals Game 5 do-or-die game was special special. We had gone into halftime down and I mean we weren’t hittin’ anything. Then I just remember everybody in the locker room was so calm. All everybody kept saying was, “You know what we need to do.”

Remember, this was the first year our new gym was built. This was Game 5. This was our year. We knew that we weren't losing that game. And we just found a way. We raised the trophy in our own building.

It’s one of those indescribable moments. To be able to give Coach T his first championship, and to give D.C. its first WNBA chip? Priceless. ABSOLUTELY PRICELESS.

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Everyone knows how 2020 went with the Wubble and everything. We didn’t leave with the outcome we wanted on the floor. But off the floor? We achieved something real.

We wanted our voices to be heard.

We knew that it was time for us to start the conversation after the shooting of Jacob Blake. I mean, I still don’t understand it. How do you even shoot someone with their back turned? Our entire season in 2020 was already dedicated to Breonna Taylor and her family and the entire Say Her Name campaign. So then during that traumatic event in Kenosha with Jacob Blake, we as a team felt like we needed to shine the spotlight on it in a real way.

The hard part for me in the bubble was knowing I had a sense of “safety” at the time. That actually made me feel guilty. You know, we were on campus, getting tested every day, playing basketball and getting fed. We were kind of in our own world.

But then it hit me: How can I feel safe when my people are out there being degraded, killed, and treated like animals?

Watching that video of Jacob Blake and constantly being desensitized to Black and brown people being murdered by authority ... that was just HEAVY.

We kept getting told we had to play. Honestly, we really didn’t want to play. Some people thought it would do nothing. Other people thought we were just being followers. In the end, we stood in solidarity with every other athlete who decided to take a stand. And a lot of people were like, “Well you didn't accomplish anything.” And to that I’ll say this: We can't erase hate and racism overnight. This country was built on it. But our purpose — the Mystics specifically — was to get people to see what was happening, and to let our community know that we are here.

It felt like no one was listening, until everyone was.

Personally, I was tired, fed up, and crying all the time. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

They were giving us the opportunity to take the microphone, so we took it.

The T-shirt idea actually came from my roommates Myisha and Emma. We made the shirts with the seven bullet holes in the back and passed them out on the bus. It really hit me when I saw my teammates, my sisters, with those bullet holes with the blood dripping from them.

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Yes, the shirts were graphic, but not even close to the actual deaths of these Black men and women at the hands of police. There was no point in softening our voices to make others feel comfortable when those same people never try to make Black people comfortable.

When I grabbed the microphone, it was one of those God moments for me when I was up there talking, because everything I said was just how I really felt. The WNBA is over 70% Black. We're going to use our voices because this is so real for us. We have Black fathers, brothers, and sons that could've had the same fate as Jacob Blake.

Man, it was even more in perspective for me because Tiana Hawkins’ son was actually in the bubble with us, and he was too young to understand why his mom was crying. When you’d look at lil E, you would start to cry because it’s just one of those moments where you realize that one day his mom is going to have to tell him about the reality of this country and how people look at him.

And it’s not right. IT’S NOT O.K.

We were all tired, and the sports world was, too.

Honestly, it’s just been a long year. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. And that’s why this moment hits different for me. To get that call from Carol, and to be a part of this Olympics team this summer, after the roller coaster that we’ve all just experienced … wow, man.

Just wow.

Listen, 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. That’s why I’m grateful to wear this uniform. We know that we have a certain spotlight, and we know what to do with it.

This is a special moment for me. It’s not just about being around some of the most talented athletes in the world who can get a bucket at any time. It’s not just about being coached by a LEGEND in Coach Staley. It’s the fact that I get to again be a part of something bigger than myself. Something bigger than basketball.

We’re ready to show the world what they already know to be true about TEAM USA.

Keeping the main thing the main thing.

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.

Ariel is now our official social correspondent for the Games. Follow Ariel’s Olympic journey over on our Instagram.