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Katie Smith receives her gold medal in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

USA's Fifth Consecutive Gold Continues Legacy

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com | August 15, 2012

When the USA women captured the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics last Saturday and London, they won not just for themselves but also for their predecessors who helped build the streak of gold medals this year's team extended to five - the most in a row ever by a country in any female team sport.

"There've been many players before us who have played in the Olympics and set the standard," said Storm point guard Sue Bird, who won her third gold medal in London. "And we did it for them just as much as we did it for ourselves."

Tina Thompson on the podium in2 004.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

When she represented the USA in the Olympics, Thompson expected nothing less than gold.

That includes three members of the Storm organization besides Bird. Katie Smith won three gold medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Tina Thompson joined Bird and Smith on the team in 2004 and 2008. And Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch served in the same role with the 1996 team that got the U.S. back atop the podium, as well as helping the USA to gold in 1984. All of them felt a measure of pride at watching this year's team follow in their footsteps.

"We all have a hand in it," said Smith. "You might not remember the rosters - you might not even remember this squad 10 years or three Olympics from now, but we all have a piece of it to carry it on and set the tone."

That tone started in 1996. After the disappointment of 1992 in Barcelona, where the U.S. women suffered defeat in Olympic play for the first time since 1976 before rallying to win bronze, USA Basketball committed to unprecedented preparation for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Darsch and the rest of the coaching staff took a year leave of absence from the college game, while players stayed home instead of playing overseas before the advent of the WNBA. The group barnstormed through the country and played some 52 exhibitions together, winning all of them. The effort translated on the court in Atlanta, as the USA swept its way to gold.

"We got the ball rolling again a little bit in '96," recalled Darsch. "I think the message was 'We don't like losing and we're going to try a new way and get this done.' It wasn't a warning - just kind of an announcement that we noticed, we don't like it and we're going to try to do something about it."

The players and coaches have all changed - repeatedly - over the last 16 years. The culture has not. Darsch made sure to credit the one constant for USA Basketball - Women's National Team Director Carol Callan - but that is mostly attributable to the players themselves. Veterans teach newcomers, who become the veterans as the cycle repeats itself.

"When you're the older one, you're setting the tone for the younger ones to understand the importance of it, the pride you should take in it and being a part of it," Smith said. "Taking the time to be a part of it and represent your country the best you can."

Both Smith and Bird are examples. During her first Olympics in 2000, Smith played with many of the same players that were on the 1996 team. She internalized their lessons, and used them as a leader in 2004 and 2008. Bird was even younger when she joined the National Team in 2002 after her rookie season in the WNBA. She watched and learned from starting point guard Dawn Staley, a veteran of 1996 and 2000. By this summer, Bird was one of the most experienced members of the USA roster.

The players are also united by their quest to win, and to only be satisfied with gold.

"I just think that everyone who commits to USA Basketball women, there's a certain expectation that we have," explained Thompson. "Honestly, as long as I've been part of USA Basketball, it's been gold medal or failure. I think that everyone who becomes a part of that elite group or sorority of women's basketball has the same expectations. If you don't, you just don't stick. So it kind of goes without saying."

"If you don't win gold, you've not succeeded," added Smith. "That's the expectation - just like the men. If you don't win the gold, that's news. That is pressure in some senses. We know if you go out and you play well and you play hard and unselfishly, which they do, you're going to give yourself the best shot to win because we do have very deep teams. If we go out and do what we're supposed to do, we should be there in the end and hopefully win a gold."

That's why Thompson wasn't watching to see whether her former USA teammates would win gold.

"It was more so how they were going to win it," she said. "Was it going to be a 30-point average, a 20-point average, or 40? I think it was around 35, so they did good."

With their performance in London, the USA women upheld the legacy their predecessors built. And that makes everyone involved with USA Basketball's streak proud.

"I think everybody that was on those staffs or teams feels a little bit of attachment to it," said Darsch. "I think we all enjoy it and feel a little bit a piece of it."

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