At each Olympic Games - winter and summer - each country's team is preceded into the Olympic stadium by an athlete or delegation representative bearing the country's flag. The flagbearer for the U.S. Olympic Team is typically chosen by the fellow athletes or respective team captains and is considered to be a great honor. With Flag Day approaching on June 14th, we bring you a series of stories focusing on several U.S. Olympic Flag Bearers over the years.
Dawn Staley played in the Final Four three times with the University of Virginia, coached Temple to the NCAA Tournament six times and picked up three gold medals playing for the U.S. Olympic Team.
All incredible accomplishments to be sure.
But if Staley had to pick her most memorable experience, it would be something else: carrying the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
"I remember being so surprised when I was nominated to carry the flag," said Staley, now the head coach of women's basketball at the University of South Carolina. "I was so honored to do it. I was blown away. I'm not an emotional person by nature, but that got to me. I was almost overwhelmed.
"There were people more deserving, like those who maybe overcome cancer or those who had accomplished more than me. When I heard, I was like, 'Me, really?' I was honored and it was an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Even when she watches highlights of the 2004 Games, she'll get tears in her eyes.
"It was a surreal experience," Staley said. "It just got to me and it's crazy because I'm not emotional. ... To be the first one out with the flag in front of all those people is almost like an out-of-body experience. It was a dream of mine and it was fulfilled. I feel like because of basketball, I've been given so much. I'm so lucky. What an experience it was and I tell kids to stay at it because dreams can come true."
Staley was raised in a rough, poverty-stricken area of north Philadelphia. Her family had little money and the only way she could play basketball in the neighborhood was to play with the boys.
Now that Staley has moved away from that, she has never forgotten where she came from.
Although she now lives in Columbia, S.C., she hasn't forgotten her Philadelphia roots. She continues to run The Dawn Staley Foundation, which is aimed at giving inner-city children in Philadelphia positive input. In the after-school programs sponsored by the foundation, participants experience a three-hour focus on academics and athletics at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center. The foundation also organizes summer leagues as well as fund-raising activities.
"I have so much because of basketball, so giving back is easy for me," Staley said. "I am blessed and I know that. I love to help kids and show them the right path to take in life. I could easily have gone down another path but I had people who helped me. I wanted to give back as much as I can. Helping kids while they're young is the time to do it."
Staley had an ultra-successful WNBA career from 1999-2005, including being named to the all-decade team. She also accepted the head coaching position at Temple in 2000. At that time, she didn't really know what to expect.
"I had no idea what I was doing," Staley quipped.
But seemingly she did.
Staley took over a struggling program and proceeded to compile a 172-80 record and along the way became the winningest coach in school history. The Owls went to the NCAA Tournament six times, posted 20 or more wins six times and captured three consecutive Atlantic-10 tournament titles in 2004, '05 and '06.
"I loved my time at Temple," Staley said. "I owe so much to them for giving me my first shot at coaching when I had such little experience. I miss Temple and all the great people there. Being a Philly kid and coaching in Philly, it was a great fit."
But with success comes attention. Enter South Carolina.
On May 10, 2008, Staley happily took over the South Carolina program.
"I had family in Columbia and this was the ultimate challenge," Staley said. "I'm one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet and this is a challenge I wanted to take on. I feel like we have a great base to be successful here. Playing in a conference with the likes of Vanderbilt and Tennessee is motivating. I'm very, very excited about our future."
The Gamecocks finished 10-18 and 2-12 in the SEC in Staley's first season. With a strong recruiting class, the future looks brighter.
"We feel like we're turning things around," Staley said. "We knew it wouldn't happen overnight and that it would take time. We're making inroads. We feel like we're going to be even better this season. We're very excited about where we're going."
Being patient is the hardest part.
"I'm such a competitor and I believe players can achieve things they don't even think are possible," Staley said. "It was like that at Temple when you had to change the whole culture and get the kids to believe they can win. Changing is not easy. I believe we're on the right path at South Carolina."
Staley's path has been one filled with remarkable accomplishments as a player and coach. She has achieved seemingly everything, including being named USA Basketball's Female Athlete of the Year in 1994 and 2004.
Staley made her first appearance in a USA Basketball uniform as a member of the 1989 Junior World Championship Team. Fifteen years later, she played her last international game after helping USA Basketball to a 196-10 record, a career highlighted by Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
But more than any award, Staley will always reflect on carrying the flag.
"It was something that just got me off guard," Staley said. "I never set out to do it. I set out to be the best player and coach I could be. Getting that chance to carry the flag was so special. What I tell kids is this: If you keep doing things the right way, good things will happen. Even if you don't set out to do something, good things will find you. Carrying the flag is a special moment in my life I'll never forget."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Andy Jasner is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.