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Candace Parker is going for her second Olympic gold medal in London.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
When she made her Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008, Candace Parker was three months into what was to become an MVP season, the first ever for a rookie in the WNBA.
Four years later, she's once again putting together an MVP-caliber season for the Los Angeles Sparks. But while her on-court dominance may look the same, make no mistake: this isn't the same Candace Parker.
In 2008, she was a 22-year-old just a few months removed from college at the University of Tennessee. Today, she's a 26-year-old professional and mother of a three-year-old daughter, playing her first full season since 2008. And all those things – the responsibilities of motherhood and the tribulations she has endured in her first four years as a professional basketball player – have helped to shape the woman that fans will see starting at forward for the United States in London.
“I think I've grown up these last four years,” Parker said. “Definitely having a child, definitely the injuries that I've gone through and the perspective that put in my head. “
2008 was an extraordinary year for Parker.
In April, she was named Most Outstanding Player at the Women's Final Four after leading her Lady Vols to the second of back-to-back national championships. Days later she became the top pick in the WNBA Draft and bolted to Los Angeles, where she became an instant star. She only glowed brighter over the course of her first year in the league, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. She signed endorsement deals with adidas, Gatorade and McDonald's.
She was also selected to represent her country in the Olympics in Beijing, where she contributed 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game off the bench on the star-laden team that won the gold medal.
“The last time I was at the Olympics it was a blur; I didn't get out, didn't do much, I was reluctant to go see the Great Wall,” said Parker. “This time around I'm really excited to go to other events and experience as much as I can while still staying focused on winning the gold medal.”
Following her amazing 2008 season came the pregnancy, which was both a blessing and a surprise for Parker and her husband, six-year NBA veteran Shelden Williams. Parker did return to the court just two months after giving birth to her daughter, Lailaa, and while she performed beyond expectations while working herself back into playing shape, she was not the same dominant force she was the year before.
Then came the injuries.
A left shoulder injury cut her 2010 WNBA season short – she played only 10 games before undergoing surgery – and also forced her to miss the 2010 FIBA World Championship. After rehabbing her shoulder and playing overseas, she returned for the start of the 2011 season, but was unable to stay on the court for long. Just six games into the season, she suffered a torn meniscus in her right knee that ended another season prematurely.
Once again it was back to rehab. Then overseas to play in Russia. And after she came out unscathed, she came back to the WNBA to attempt her first full year with the Sparks since her rookie season. All she's done so far is average 19 points and 10 rebounds per game and surge to the top of the WNBA Race to the MVP as she's led the Sparks to a 15-6 record prior to the WNBA's Olympic break.
“I feel truly blessed, because a couple years ago it was looking like maybe the Olympics weren't in my future anymore,” she said. “I'm very happy to be back on the court playing, very happy to have a healthy daughter. A lot of things have changed in the last four years.
“Having the perspective as a mother I understand that nothing is promised,” she continued. “I could be at the next Olympics, I could not be. So I just really want to take everything in. I didn't really go and see a lot of the other events when I could have last time. This time I want to go see as many events as I can and take in the experience.”
The Olympics will be Parker's first trip to London, and, as always, the well-traveled Lailaa will be with her to share the experience. They will see the sites: Big Ben, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and the London Bridge – a nursery rhyme that Lailaa has been singing recently, not knowing that they are about to see the real thing.
“I'm looking forward to just my daughter being here,” Parker said. “This is her first Olympics with me and so it will be fun to look back at pictures. Even though she's only three and I don't think she can quite grasp how important it is, later on she will.”
While she plans to take in more of the Olympic experience this time around – Parker also plans to watch her friend Allyson Felix on the track and Michael Phelps in the pool – she knows that she must focus on the task at hand, which is helping the U.S. claim their fifth straight gold medal.
“When you play in the Olympics, and you dream of playing in the Olympics since you were a kid, this is the highest level, in my mind, that you can play at,” she said. “And to be one of the 12 members of the team, you would be doing a disservice to yourself and all those that helped you get to this point if you didn't go out there and work as hard as you could to go out there and represent the United States.”
With such an array of talent surrounding her on the U.S. roster, Parker will not be asked to carry the team like she must at times in Los Angeles. But National Team coach Geno Auriemma wants to see the versatile forward – who is listed on the USA Basketball roster as a forward, center and guard, as she was at Tennessee – play up to a potential that Parker may not even know she has.
“I'm always trying to get to her to believe that she is the best player in the world and she should act like it every minute of every day,” said Auriemma. “So that's been fun for me to watch her try to prove that there's nothing out on the floor that she can't do, which basically there isn't.”
The relationship between Auriemma and Parker is a special one. Hailing from UConn and Tennessee, respectively, the college rivalry can be heard when the two meet at practice.
“I have to wear my orange a couple times,” said Parker in regards to a U.S. squad that features a head coach and six former players from UConn. “I remind Coach Auriemma that he didn't win when we were there, so he can't really talk all that stuff because when I was there at Tennessee he didn't win.”
“We didn't recruit Candace and I let her know that all the time,” Auriemma quipped back. “She says ‘Well I wouldn't have come there anyway,' and I say, ‘That's fine we didn't recruit you anyway.'”
But all jokes aside, Auriemma has seen the changes in Parker since he first started working with her after becoming coach of the National team back in 2009.
“I sense there's a maturity factor about her and that probably comes from having to raise a child because all of a sudden your life changes,” he said. “I remember a couple years ago maybe it was a little more like ‘whatever' and I see a much greater sense of urgency right now and a much greater awareness of what's important and what's not important.
“I told her about that. And I'm really happy for her personally because that's what you want, you want every year to keep growing and growing and in this case I think she wakes up in the morning and thinks more about her daughter than she does about herself. I think translates on the court as well. I'm thrilled for her.”