Tara VanDerveer can finally see the finish line. It came into view Thursday morning, as she was brushing her teeth.
''Four more days,'' the Stanford women's basketball coach told herself as she polished her pearly whites. ''You can sleep after four days.''
For 17 months now, Tara VanDerveer has been in need of nothing so much as a nap. She took a one-season sabbatical from Stanford to coach the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Atlanta, and the next day flew back across the country to appear at a camp. She found life in the fast lane fatiguing, but she couldn't bring herself to apply the brakes.
Not yet. Not now. Not with her team so close to a championship. Maybe Sunday night. Maybe Sunday night she can sleep.
''It really just hit me yesterday,'' she said, standing briefly still in a hallway at Riverfront Coliseum. ''I was really tired yesterday. I think it was coming back to Cincinnati, knowing that we started here 17 months ago (on the pre-Olympic tour). I saw some people that I worked with from USA Basketball. They've maybe been on vacation, and they look at me like, 'You're doing the same thing.'''
VanDerveer has coached close to 100 games since she took charge of the Dream Team in 1995, and her work has started to show a numbing sameness. That is to say she almost always wins.
One loss that counts
Since the Olympic barnstorming tour began at Indian Hill High School in October 1995, VanDerveer has lost only once in a game that counted. She was 60-0 with the Olympic team, and is 34-1 so far this season with Stanford. Her lone loss was last Dec. 17 at Old Dominion. Should Stanford avenge that defeat tonight, it will advance to Sunday's NCAA Championship Game. If not, VanDerveer's sleep schedule can be accelerated.
''I really considered doing something in December,'' she told the San Francisco Chronicle recently. ''If I can't give 100 percent to the team, then I've got to get out. I was tired, and I felt like I was cheating the team. ... In a way, some of the best coaching I've done this year was myself.''
She has done, by any standard, a remarkable job. Both her sabbatical and her return have involved relatively seamless transitions. VanDerveer left Stanford sufficiently stocked for a Final Four run last season, and returns to the championship round this week favored to win her third NCAA title.
When Bob Knight returned to Indiana University after his Olympic experience in 1984, he was as close to a breakdown as a breakthrough. That was the season of his celebrated chair-throwing episode, and subsequent suspension. Tara VanDerveer may be tired, but she's not nearly so cranky.
''I'd say she's more relaxed, especially the second half of our season when she got her energy back,'' said Kate Starbird, Stanford's star guard. ''She was kind of halfway around last year a lot. We noticed the changes then. She was maybe not as busy, maybe more accessible one-on-one. Maybe she always wanted to be that way.''
A different intensity
Coaching the Olympic team meant enormous pressure, but it has also enabled VanDerveer to decompress. Once she had carried the burden of representing the whole country, college basketball could never again seem so intense. VanDerveer compares her experience to returning to Earth after viewing the planet from the face of the Moon. Inevitably, it brings a new perspective.
''Some of it is a little strange,'' she said. ''After you've been to the Olympics, I'm not so sure the hoopla feels as hoopy as it used to. It definitely affected me in a lot of ways.''
Even as she battled exhaustion, VanDerveer has not lost her edge. She returned from the Olympics determined to pick up the pace of her practices, and to speed up the style of Stanford's play. She cultivated an up-tempo team that has overwhelmed four tournament opponents by an average of 32.8 points.
She has earned a nice, long rest.