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Jackson Carries the Flag for Her Country

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com | July 26, 2012

As Australia's Chef de Mission, Nick Green, pondered the important decision of who would bear the flag and lead the country's delegation in Friday's Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, Lauren Jackson's resume stood out. The Seattle Storm star is representing her country in the Olympics for the fourth time, having previously led the Australian Opals to silver medals at home in Sydney in 2000, in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. By virtue of her success both internationally and in the WNBA, Jackson is one of Australia's most cherished exports.

Still, Jackson wasn't an obvious choice as flag bearer to one person in particular - herself.

"When Nick called me into his office I thought, initially, that I was in trouble for something I'd done," Jackson told reporters during a press conference Wednesday in London to announce her selection. "But he said 'No. Can you keep a secret? You're the flag bearer.'"

Lauren Jackson receives her silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

With three silver medals in her trophy case, Jackson hopes to add gold.

To earn the honor, Jackson beat out a number of deserving candidates, highlighted by four-time Olympian swimmer Leisel Jones and former world No. 1 tennis player Lleyton Hewitt. She becomes the first female Australian flag bearer since diver Jenny Donnet in 1992 and joined Andrew Gaze in 2000 as basketball players to carry the flag.

The choice carries tremendous weight for Jackson.

"Tomorrow night, even tonight, is just the proudest moment of my life, no doubt about it," she said. "To be named the leader of the team, and to be able to walk in front of Australia at an Olympic Games is something that I never, in my wildest dreams, would have imagined I could achieve. I can't think of anything that would ever top this. Obviously a gold medal would be awesome, but I feel like this is something that will never happen again."

After participating in the Opening Ceremony, Jackson will set to work on completing her resume with the missing honor she covets more than any other - an Olympic gold medal. Jackson and the Opals broke through to win the FIBA World Championship in 2006 and she has won titles at every other level, including a pair with the Storm, but the gold medal has eluded her. In all three of Jackson's Olympic appearances, Australia has lost to the United States in the gold-medal game.

"It's the only thing I haven't achieved in my career, and it's going to be the hardest thing," Jackson told The Australian in May.

Four years ago, fresh off their breakthrough in the World Championship, the Opals ascended to the role of co-favorites entering the Beijing Olympics. With Jackson and fellow star Penny Taylor both battling ankle injuries, the USA dominated the final. Since then, Australia has gone the wrong direction. The team was upset by the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Championship and finished fifth, marking the first time the Opals failed to reach the podium since the 1994 World Championship.

All along, Australia had pointed to 2012 as the last best chance to win a gold medal behind the generation led by Jackson and Taylor, both 31. That's part of why Jackson decided to sit out the first half of the WNBA schedule to train with her national team, a break from her routine from 2004 and 2008. The Opals' hopes took a hit when Taylor, coming off an All-WNBA Second Team performance for the Phoenix Mercury, tore her left ACL while playing for Fenerbahce in the EuroLeague Final Eight. The injury knocked Taylor out of the lineup for London.

"Penny's a huge blow," Jackson said to The Australian in May. "What happened to her is crazy and she's been playing great basketball, too. We can't dwell on it; we can't think about it. As a team we need to move forward and find ways to compensate. Now's the time for people like Jenna O'Hea and Belinda Snell to step up and shine."

Without Taylor, Australia still boasts plenty of proven talent. Eight of the Opals' 12 players have played in the WNBA, including three besides Jackson with ties to the Storm - Suzy Batkovic, Abby Bishop and Snell. The 2012 roster is highlighted by Liz Cambage, the No. 2 pick of the 2011 WNBA Draft who is appearing in her first Olympics. Paired in the frontcourt with the 6-6 Jackson, the 6-8 Cambage presents challenging matchups for opposing countries, including the USA. When the two powers met in the 2010 World Championship, Cambage's major international debut, she had 18 points and seven rebounds in an 83-75 American win.

"'We have come so close so many times. We want to do exceptional things."
- Jackson

With Batkovic and Bishop coming off the bench, Australia is deep in the frontcourt. The questions about the Opals center around the perimeter, where O'Hea will step in for Taylor as a starter. Starting point guard Kristi Harrower, like Jackson in her fourth Olympics, is now 37. And Australia's guard depth was compromised when talented Erin Phillips was left off the final roster.

The Opals' advantage over the USA will be continuity. Phillips was the only Australian who decided to play in the WNBA rather than training with the national team, which has been together for two months as compared to the two weeks the U.S. team has spent preparing for the Olympics. The Opals will know in a little more than two weeks whether better chemistry can translate into the upset that Jackson and her teammates have dreamed of for years.

'We have a long road ahead just to get to that gold-medal game, so we are not focusing too much on that,'' Jackson told her hometown Canberra Times. ''We have come so close so many times. We want to do exceptional things.''

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