"Even though the rest of the world is getting better," says Candace Parker, "we still feel like we're the best."
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One of the most highly touted rookies to ever come out of the college ranks, Candace Parker led Tennessee to its second-straight National Championship earlier this spring. And after becoming the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, she hasn't disappointed so far in her rookie season. She is the odds-on favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and is making a solid case to be the league's Most Valuable Player.
But these are the Olympics. And without a gold medal in her collection, you can bet this first-time Olympian will be giving her all starting next weekend in Beijing. WNBA.com's Adam Hirshfield spoke with Parker about transitioning to her third team in four months, her role on the U.S. squad and her sightseeing plans in China.
Q01. You've played with a number of junior and senior USA Basketball squads in previous years, but this is your first Olympic experience. What is going through your mind as you prepare for the biggest international hoops event of your career so far?
A. "All I know is that I'm part of this team. And we're just spending time together out on the court and trying to get into that Olympic mode. I've had a lot of hats to wear in the last few months going from college athlete to the WNBA and now to the Olympics That's a lot of switching gears, but it's easy to do when you get the chance to represent your country.
"This is something I've dreamt of doing forever. This is just a great opportunity, a great experience and something that I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life."
Q02. What do you feel you're personally bringing to this team? What role do you see yourself playing, especially on such a stacked roster?
A. "I'm young, I'm excited and I'm willing to learn from this veteran group. I'm one of just five first-time Olympians, so we're trying to learn all we can from our teammates experienced Olympians like Lisa Leslie. My role, I feel, is to back up those veterans."
Q03. Given that you're among several younger superstars on this squad, is there any sense of trying to go out there and show people that the new generation is here and that the skill and excitement you bring is even higher than the previous one?
A. "There's nothing going through my mind about trying to outdo the players who have come before us. But Coach (Anne Donovan) has given us the confidence and clearance to step up and play to our strengths. She tells us that we're on this team for a reason. The only thing that really separates us from the veterans is that, well, we were born later. But that doesn't mean we have to take a back seat, you know?"
Q04. Is there any deeper sense of motivation for this team after not winning the World Championships in 2006? Do you feel the USA has something to prove this time around?
A. "I think that the rest of world gained a lot of confidence when they saw that we could lose. 'Wow, the United States lost.' Now they think they have a way in. And there's no denying that we lost at the World Championships. Of course, we weren't at full strength, but we lost nonetheless. And we're gonna have to come out and play hard. Even though the rest of the world is getting better, we still feel like we're the best in the world."
Q05. What do you feel like this team needs to accomplish over the next week to adequately prepare for your opening game on August 9?
A. "We really need to focus on bringing a defensive mindset to every game. Coach has stressed that we all need to play our minutes. Don't pace yourself, don't take even a moment off. Everyone on our team is talented across the board, so every minute matters and we have to play hard every moment we're out there."
Q06. Is there another player on this roster with whom you're really looking forward to playing? Is there someone you're really psyched to be a part of this team with?
A. "My Sparks teammates, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones. It's like, 'Hey guys nice to see you again,' (laughs). It's just great to have people to experience this with, people you're close to, so that you don't have to experience it yourself. Also, Tina Thompson and I are very, very, very close. It's always great to play with her. Tamika Catchings and I are very close as well."
Q07. Do you have any plans or sightseeing activities set up for once you arrive in Beijing?
A. "No, not really. I'll just be spending time with my family. I'm excited just to see China a little bit I've never been to Asia before."
Q08. What one thing are you most looking forward to about this Olympic experience?
A. "Standing on the podium, getting the gold medal. I can't get that image out of my head. And it's funny, because it's one of those things that I just can't see happening any other way. I can't see any other team standing up there getting the gold medal. Like it's destined to be ours."