As a child, South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley watched the Olympics to see one of two women’s basketball games broadcast on television. Viewing basketball in this platform inspired Staley’s dreams of becoming an Olympian.
“Back then, when I was a little girl growing up, loving playing sports and when your only exposure to it is those two games, that’s what you grow up aspiring to accomplish,” Staley said.
Growing up in the projects of Philadelphia, Staley encountered obstacles to her success, including a number of injuries. Despite these challenges, she felt she was fated to become an Olympian, partly because of the people around her.
“My mom was a disciplinarian. She was one that was always supportive in ways that only a mother could be,” Staley said. “She sacrificed her needs to provide her kids their wants and when you have someone sacrificing (for) you, whoever it is they’re sacrificing for, they’re destined to be successful, especially when it comes out of pure love.”
In 1996, Staley reached her first Olympic Games and won her first gold medal.
“I’ve never been married, but I could probably equate it to that, is just getting married, just accomplishing something that’s a lifelong dream,” Staley said.
While Team USA’s primary goal was winning gold in the '90s, two women’s basketball leagues had recently formed, including the WNBA in 1996, and the team saw the Olympics as a means of furthering the sport.
“We saw how impactful the NBA is for men, you know, it’s that carrot dangled in front of them. We didn’t have that as women,” Staley said. “We only had opportunities to go overseas and play, and we wanted our family, our friends and all the people that watched us grow up in college see women play during the peaks of their careers, and so we did feel the pressure of performing well and making sure that we won gold.”
Staley went on to play in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, winning gold in both. In Athens, she served the role of flag bearer for the U.S. in the opening ceremony, becoming the only basketball player to do so.
“The whole process of elimination to become the flag bearer was interesting and exciting all at the same time, but to actually come through the stadium in front of our U.S. contingency was amazing,” Staley said. “There’s no other feeling. I floated.”
Over the course her 20 years of experience coaching and playing in the Olympics and other international competition, Staley has witnessed changes in women’s basketball as more Americans notice Team USA’s dominance.
“People see that and want it. They strive to become a WNBA player, an Olympian, and when you have that in front of you as a visual, tangible thing, people have gotten better,” Staley said. “So I think the game’s more talented, I mean filled with more talented players. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re better, and it’s the evolution of our game, which is a great thing.”
Staley gained a new perspective during her time as an Olympic coach that she plans to apply to her coaching style with the Gamecocks.
“The purity and the innocence of the game is still displayed with USA basketball [and] it helps me coach our team at USC a lot better because it’s pure, it’s innocent," she said. "It is coming together for one common goal and once you have that, it makes life a lot easier and the game look beautiful.”
She plans to use this new outlook, as well as her Olympic coaching and playing experience, to help a roster she says is full of Gamecocks hoping to excel at the international level.
“Basketball has really been a true gift that keeps on giving and I’ve been really steadily trying to repay basketball the debt that I have with it for so many great things that it’s done for me and my family,” Staley said. “I just want to keep growing.”