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  3. The Journey to Gold: The 1996 Olympic Women’s Basketball Team

The Journey to Gold: The 1996 Olympic Women’s Basketball Team

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| March 25, 2022If you buy something from a link on our site, Queen Ballers Club may earn a commission.
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Hosted by Michelle Kwan, the Summer of Gold podcast provides an unrivaled perspective on one of the most important moments in American sports and cultural history: the ’96 Olympic Games held in Atlanta, Georgia. The story is told by the 1996 Olympics women’s basketball team (Team USA) who dominated that summer. Be sure to give it a listen to hear directly from legends!

Today we’ll share part of the basketball story, taking you from some of the most interesting moments on the lead up to the Olympics through the final game day. We’ll also reveal how hearing about the start of a potential new league – the WNBA – impacted the women’s play and their world tour. So buckle up for a story filled with tenacity, passion, and undeniable work ethic.

“When I think about the 1996 team they put together, it wasn’t the best players in the country. But we had the best chemistry and the best understanding of sacrifice and self for the team.” reflected Lisa Leslie on Dawn Staley’s podcast.

1996 Olympic Women’s Basketball Team excellence

Summer of Gold episode 3 reveals that the lead up to the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta presented challenges for the women’s basketball team. In the entire history of Olympic basketball, the US women had only lost three games. Two of those loses came in 1992, when the US had to settle for bronze. With the 1996 Olympic games being held in Atlanta, the team was determined not to lose again.

“We have to be the best team in the world. We can’t be second or third place in our own tournament on our home turf.” Michelle Smith-McDonald, a sportswriter who’s been covering women’s basketball since the mid 90s, explained as the vibe.

Overseas was the only option

At the time, the best players could make up to $200,000 a year playing overseas. Instead the women on the US Basketball team were asked to spend ten months preparing for the games. During that time, they’d travel 100,000 miles to play 52 games in five countries – all for a salary of just $50,000.

Sheryl Swoopes said the players didn’t hesitate when presented with the opportunity. “I think we all at that time were like let’s go! Right? Like let’s do it, whatever that means. And some of us were either married or in serious relationships. But none of that mattered.”

The 1996 USA women's basketball team roster for the Olympics
Via USA Basketball

In the lead up to the ’96 Olympics, women’s basketball looked very different than it does today. “We were very much still in a place where players were going overseas to play. And they were much more limited in their contact with home, with things that were familiar to them. It wasn’t a terribly pleasant experience. They were in a foreign country. There was no Netflix, where you can watch your American TV programs and keep yourself busy. There wasn’t an easy way to contact family and friends. [Instead] there was a lot of isolation. And a lot of people wishing there was an opportunity to play at home. Because playing overseas, frankly, sucked.” explained Michelle.

Roughly 60% of WNBA players still go overseas in the winter. They return to the US to play in the summer. But in the early 90s, players didn’t have that option. And that meant that fans at home never really got to see them at their peak.

Then new leagues hit the scene

“If we only saw Michael Jordan play in college. If we only saw him play up until he was 21 years old, I mean we would have missed out on greatness,” said Dawn Staley. In the months before the Atlanta games, two rival professional women’s basketball leagues announced their intentions to start play. “We found out about the ABL first. And then the WNBA was kind of shortly after that.” said Dawn.

The ABL was the American Basketball League, an independent operation with some decent financial backing. The WNBA’s prospects were even better, with the juggernaut of the NBA behind it. Suddenly there was more at stake at the Olympics than gold, silver, and bronze.

“You know it was added pressure for us to perform at a high level and to take America by storm. To make sure they saw women play during the peaks of their careers. We often talked about the leagues are standing on the shoulders of our success.” said Dawn.

The Team USA tour would take the players to China, Russia, and Australia to play against touch international competition. But they’d play more than half of their games in the US. Because the goal was to make them famous, here, at home. Where no one had seen them play since college.

Every town they went to it was kind of a barn storm. They would go in, they would do press conferences, they were available to the local media. Everybody would write stories about the US Team coming into town. The US tour went through Storrs, Connecticut, Knoxville, Tennessee, Lubbock, Texas, and Stanford, California. Places where fans knew about and appreciated women’s college basketball. During its travels, the team even went for a jog with then-president Bill Clinton.

Putting on a show for the fans

The team beat every opponent they faced. But Sheryl Swoopes said winning wasn’t enough. “We wanted to destroy them. We didn’t even want it to be close. We’re not even going to give you hope, that you think you can beat us.”

US basketball fans had never seen a group of women with this much skill and athleticism. “We always felt like, there’s somebody in this gym tonight that’s never watched a women’s basketball game before. And this is our opportunity to show them what they’ve been missing out on. And so hopefully – this may be your first time – but it won’t be your last.” said Sheryl.

The challenge of a lifetime for Team USA

The team went through a challenging year to get ready for the ’96 Olympics. “That year was not an easy year.” said Sheryl. Before their world tour, they spent three weeks at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“[We flew to] Colorado Spring five days before the actual try out just to get acclimated to the altitude, to get sick, and then be ready for the try out so we [could] run faster than everybody else. That’s sacrifice, and we did that on pennies. We didn’t have money like we do now. We were trying to make it.” said Lisa Leslie. “The altitude about killed us half the time. We’re up early in the morning, going to the track, running in the snow. It was tough.” remembers Sheryl.

Once the tour actually began Dawn Staley said it wasn’t the back to back games that were the problem, “The schedule wasn’t brutal. What was brutal were the practices. I mean Tara [VanDerveer] made it really hard.”

Tara VanDerveer is a legendary women’s basketball coach at Stanford. At the time, she left her college job to make sure that the US women won gold at the ’96 Olympics, and she took her job very seriously. “You have to understand, like Tara’s days off weren’t your normal day off. If we practice today from 10 to 1, and you expect the day off meaning you got tomorrow off like all of tomorrow off. Nah, not with Tara. If practice ended at 1, she thought that starting practice the following day at 3, where there were more than 24 hours in between, was a day off.” said Dawn.

Building a bond

Tara said that’s not exactly true. “She’s exaggerating yeah.” said Tara. But Tara admitted she didn’t take it easy on her players. “Winning a gold medal is not an easy thing to do and it’s kind of how players are. They will complain about how hard they’ve had to work. But in a good way. They’re proud of it.” said Tara.

And what little time the women had off, they spent together. They became close, like sisters, which was good because they soon learned they needed to lean on each other during practice. “There were times when we were training when I was like ‘Oh, no'” said Sheryl. “Seriously, about Tara. I was like this woman has lost her mind. There were several of us at times that were like, ‘Nah.’ But we, as teammates, having each other’s backs were like, ‘Oh no. You’re not quitting. You’re not leaving. You got this.'” she continued.

Tara was known for being intense, and she didn’t go easy on anyone. “Everybody had their day, that Tara picked on you. And I think it was strategic.” said Dawn. “I thought she picked on every single person to put them in that position of wanting to give up, yet wanting to stay in this because we built such strong sisterhood with each other. I thought she built a wedge between us and her to create that.” said Dawn.

Tara knew that being tough on her players would bring them closer together. “That was part of it. They could commiserate together a little bit. They were like ‘Wow, we’re working so hard. Tara, she’s crazy!’ They had each other, and they were the only people that could understand how hard they were working.” said Tara. Sometimes the players would be on the bus traveling to the next city when they’d learn that instead of getting a break, they were expected to get off the bus and immediately dress for practice.

All the team’s hard work paid off. They won 52 games in a row. “That’s kind of unheard of,” said Sheryl. “That’s almost impossible to do.” she continued. After traveling 100,000 miles and playing games in five countries the players must have felt a sense of relief. But they still had eight games to go before they could capture the Olympic Gold medal.

Episode 5 reveals the final preparation and the end result.

Visualizing success

Tara VanDerveer remembers hearing a story about how NASA engineers prepared for the 1969 moon landing. “They had a big picture of the moon, and that was just a visual to help the scientists and everyone that the goal was to land a person on the moon.” A quarter of a century later, Tara was named the head coach of the US women’s national team. “And I said for our team our goal was to win a gold medal.” So Tara got creative. Nine months before the ’96 Olympics, Tara decided to take her players on a field trip. “Basically I told our team, someone is going to win this gold medal. Let’s make sure it’s us. Let’s practice every single thing to get ready for it, including the medal ceremony.”

Sheryl Swoopes remembers that day well. “Tara’s talking on the bus, telling us where we’re going and all of us at the time were like ‘OK.'” The bus arrived at the Georgia dome where the goal would be held on August 4, 1996. “She had them turn on the lights, and she had them put their pictures up on the big screen, and she really wanted them to see the experience that they were going to have at the end of this road.” explained Michelle.

“She had the whole thing set up. It was just this elaborate visualization exercise for a group of players who you would think in theory kind of don’t need that motivation. But to have them do it together, and to walk them into that physical space I think was really important for her to get them to feel the way they needed to feel about the Olympics.”

The players were led down to the field and asked to visualize a basketball court. “So she said, ‘Close your eyes.'” said Sheryl Swoopes. “We didn’t question anything. So we all closed our eyes. And she said, ‘Imagine this is where you are. We’re standing on the medal stand.’ and she just said, ‘Think about millions of fans just cheering us on.'” Sheryl explained. One of the veteran players brought the gold medals she won in ’84 and ’88 so that her teammates could experience what it felt like to bend down as gold medals were placed around their necks. “Tara was always very big on visualization. And to be honest with you, I never really got into that until that moment.” said Sheryl.

And then, Tara asked her players to imagine something else. “‘What does it feel like not being on the top?’ And none of us every wanted to feel that. So we were like, ‘I don’t know. We don’t know what that feels like. We don’t know what second or third feels like because we don’t do that.'” said Sheryl. “From that moment on the only thing we could think about and we could imagine was always being the best, and always being on top and finishing first. We never – even today – we don’t have a conversation about not bringing home gold.” said Sheryl.

Mounting pressure

The morning of the team’s first game, two of their starters were too nervous to even eat breakfast. Sheryl Swoopes didn’t really feel the nerves until later when she walked out onto the court. “I just remember going through warm ups, talking to myself, saying ‘You’re here for a reason’, like for me ‘You belong!’. I was one of the youngest ones on the team and just telling myself you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be so go do what you do.” said Sheryl.

As the US worked their way through the tournament, Sheryl realized that she might have been nervous, but she wasn’t worried. “There was never a moment where I felt like we weren’t going to win.” Sheryl said. “We were prepared. We were over prepared.” said Dawn. “So it was just basically ‘By how many?’ Like how many points are we going to win by. ‘How many great plays?’, ‘How many unselfish plays are we going to make?’ For me how many behind the back passes, how many between the legs, and it was nothing disrespectful to our opponents. It had everything to do with what we had gone through and for everything we had to do for our future.” said Dawn.

This US had never had one successful women’s pro basketball leagues – let alone too. And if Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, and the rest of the team were going to have a chance to play in the US they were going to need to put on a show during the Olympic games. So even when the team was beating teams by 20 points, 40 points, they didn’t let up.

There was one fan in particular Sheryl Swoopes wanted to please: David Stern. He was the Commissioner of the NBA. As Sheryl knew, the WNBA would need his full support if it were to survive. “For us it was a matter of showing Commissioner Stern why we needed to have a professional league. And if we’re able to not only win but show Commissioner Stern and everyone else how good we are, how strong we are, how tough we are, how competitive we are, how beautiful we are, I think that was the pressure we put on ourselves.”

The final game day at the ’96 games

The women’s basketball gold medal game was scheduled for the very last day of the Olympics. It was USA vs. Brazil. Similarly to the US at that point, Brazil was also boasting of a 7-0 record. Brazil entered the game with the upper hand having dismissed USA squads in the semifinals of the ’94 World Championship and ’91 Pan Am Games. Though Dawn Staley was not worried. “I felt like…nothing will separate us from having more points than Brazil at the end of this game. We were armed with so much talent, so much togetherness. We had everything we needed. “

But not everyone was quite as assured. Sheryl said, “Brazil, in ’96, I would say was definitely our toughest competition. I knew how tough that match up was going to be. They were always exciting. We always knew that it was going to be a battle, and sometimes people may look at the score and say it was a high scoring game or you guys ended up beating them by 20 points or so. And I’m like well maybe we did, but the game was a lot tougher and closer than 20 points.”

The 1996 US squad dominated Brazil by 24 points to reclaim the Olympic gold medal at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Dawn remembers exactly what she said as the gold medal was being hung around her neck. “I just said, ‘Give me mine!’ and it was one of the most incredible moments. Because it was a lifelong dream and goal of mine to do it. I was 26 years old at the time. And I was sitting on top of the world. I was doing it with the people that I absolutely loved doing it with. And created a sisterhood that won’t ever be broken.” she recalled.

The future fueled by the 1996 Olympic Women’s Basketball Team

Sheryl Swoopes felt similarly, but was more concerned about what the future might hold. “I mean it felt great. To be very honest my first thought was, I can’t wait to do this in four more years. That was my first thought…There were so many things going through my mind when I was standing there. Like I made it, I did it, we did it. So you celebrate for a minute, and then it becomes now what. What’s next? What’s going to happen? Was David Stern pleased? Was he happy? Are we going to have a league?”

Rolling to an 8-0 Olympic mark, the USA, which began training on October 2, 1995, compiled a 52-0 record during its pre-Olympic competition to finish with a 60-0 record. More popular than any previous women’s basketball team, the USA drew a record 202,556 fans during the Olympics for an average of 25,320 a game.

With its success and popularity, the 1996 US Olympic Women’s Basketball team is credited with helping to pave the way for the founding of the WNBA, which launched in the spring of 1997 and the now-defunct National Women’s Basketball League, which launched in the fall of 1996.

Atlanta was never just about the gold medals. It was about something bigger. For many, the ’96 Olympics would be seen as a turning point for women’s sports. Go behind the scenes for the rest of the Olympic journey by listening to the Summer of Gold podcast.

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