It’s not everyday that young, aspiring athletes are able to benefit from the knowledge of an Olympian, let alone four of them. However, during this weekend’s trials, four Olympians were among the coaching staffs and committee. And all four took a moment to talk to the entire group of 85 athletes -- including those hoping to play in the 2015 FIBA World Championship, Pan American Games and World University Games -- and left an impact on everyone.
“It was a great experience to be able to listen to them, to hear about their USA Basketball experience,” said Duke’s Rebecca Greenwell, a two-time gold medalist and co-MVP of the FIBA Americas U16 Championship. “It was really inspiring. Everyone who was listening aspires to be like them some day.
“A lot of them talked about not specifically individual things that helped them become an Olympian, but being a great teammate and playing for something bigger than you,” Greenwell added. “That is what is important.”
1980 Olympian Holly Warlick, head coach at Tennessee and an assistant for the WUGs team told the athletes to take advantage of this opportunity because, “You are the future of USA Basketball. You are the next Dawn Staley. The next Kara Lawson.”
Northern Colorado’s Kamie Ethridge, who won Olympic gold in 1988 and is a court coach at trials, told her story of being cut from during the 1984 trials and how that motivated her to become better. She also wanted the athletes to take advantage of the “unbelievable experience and the knowledge of all the successful coaches” at the trials.
Next up was USA U19 and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who had the honor of carrying the flag and leading the U.S. delegation into opening ceremony in 2004. Staley also told the group about how she was cut during the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and like Ethridge, used that as motivation to make future teams.
Last, but certainly not least, was USA Junior National Team Committee member and 2008 gold medalist Kara Lawson, who stressed what the others had also mentioned, which is to take advantage of every opportunity. Lawson, who was invited to train with the USA National Team in 2007, said she jumped at the chance to compete in each and every USA training camp prior to the 2008 Olympics -- going as far as cutting her honeymoon short to join the team, which is what eventually landed her a spot on the team.
“It doesn’t matter how you get your foot in the door,” said Lawson. “Once you get in, make sure that you do the things you need to do that will keep you there.”
The history and stories of the Olympians and their respective journeys resonated with everyone in the gym.
“Just to take advantage of every moment,” said five-time gold medalist Katie Lou Samuelson (Mater Dei H.S./Huntington Beach, Calif.), when asked what stood out to her. “They’ve been through everything, through the same things we’re going through. They said how amazing it is to actually be an Olympian, and that’s really the main goal. They really inspired me. Even if you get cut, you keep going because that’s really where every player wants to be and that’s my goal.”
“It was extremely motivating, to be honest,” stated North Carolina’s Stephanie Mavunga, a 2011 USA U16 National Team gold medalist and 2015 All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team selection. “To listen to all the greats, you cannot not open your ears to their advice. You can’t not take their advice, because they have been where you want to be. To not take their advice would be quite stupid, I must say.”
University of Connecticut’s Gabby Williams has already gotten a taste of what it’s like trying out for an Olympic team. When she was 15, Williams was the youngest competitor at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and finished fifth in the high jump.
“A few years ago when I tried out with high jump, I was just having fun with it because I was young and I wasn’t really supposed to be there. I was 15, so I was just having fun with it. Here, I’m a little bit more competitive. A few years ago I was just having fun, there was no pressure, if I jumped well, I jumped well. But here, I think there’s a little bit more pressure.
“The biggest thing I took away is that once you’re here, make sure that you don’t give them a reason to send you home,” added Williams. “It was really cool to hear from them and see what kind of things I need to start preparing for if I want to put myself on the road to being an Olympian.”
Mavunga concluded with this, “To be around so many Olympians is really truly a blessing. To have tips from coach Dawn Staley and Kara Lawson is amazing. To see everyone around, to know that I am in the presence of so many great players; once an Olympian, always an Olympian so I am not going to say former Olympian, is phenomenal. They are phenomenal.”