These days three-time Olympian Dawn Staley is immersed in recruiting for her South Carolina squad. But speaking from her Chicago hotel, she’s certain she’ll catch the tape-delayed airing of the London Olympic Games on Friday.
Particularly to watch Australian star Lauren Jackson carry her country’s flag as Staley did for the United States at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
“I don’t sleep well, so I will definitely watch it,” said Staley, who was also an assistant coach for USA Basketball’s 2008 Olympic team. “I know at least I’ll see Lauren. I might be dead tired and sleep by the time the United States is called.”
Staley, a point guard, was the first basketball player to do so for the Americans while Jackson, a center, is the second for the Aussies. Staley and Jackson are the only WNBA players to receive the honor.
Their process to becoming flag bearer was different. Jackson was a one-man committee selection whereas Staley was a member the democratic system that landed her the gig.
The American team captains from the various sports gathered to whittle out a top-five, hearing stories about each candidate. Staley was the only candidate who was also in the room. After the five were chosen, there was a vote to select the top-three and then a flag bearer was named — Staley.
“It was surreal,” said Staley, a two-time WNBA All-Star who retired from the league in 2006. “To this day I don’t know how I was chosen. Probably more than likely because I was in the room.
“My teammates and the men’s basketball team told me to nominate myself. So, I went into the room and I hear all of these other stories about people who had career-ending injuries, cancer-survivors…I thought my story compared nothing to what some people where able to overcome. But we heard everybody out and I couldn’t believe I made the top-five or top-three. We took the final vote and they chose me. I didn’t know how prestigious it was until I had meetings with the (USOC) people about it and the media and all of that.”
Aside from the stories, Staley said who the other nominees where remains a blur because she couldn’t believe her own name was still being considered. Her speech was short about herself, not even mentioning her hardships being raised in the housing projects of Philadelphia or her foundation to give back to inner-city children.
“I know it wasn’t my inspiring words in talking about myself,” said Staley, who shies from tooting her own horn anyway. She was coaching at Temple at the time and knew that Olympics would be her last, ultimately helping Team USA win a third consecutive gold medal.
Once she acknowledge the honor, Staley was quickly schooled on what to do. The rules were simple, however: Keep the flag straight. Do not dip it. Do not tilt it. And be prepared for a negative reception from the crowd because it’s the United States.
But despite being in two previous Olympics, Staley didn’t realize she’d be the first to walk into the stadium with the USA delegation behind her. She waited about two hours with the other American Olympians in a holding area for athletes, playing cards at one point with Storm All-Star Sue Bird, then followed the procession. She could see her face on the jumbo tron and teammates along with other Americans trying to get close to her for some TV time since the flag-bearer is always highlighted.
And she didn’t dip or tilt the flag during the route around the stadium.
“I wasn’t nervous until I actually got to the stadium,” she said. “I thought (the flag) was going to be heavy and I was going to have trouble keeping it upright. But it’s very light and you had a harness as well. It was an easy task.”
Staley, as Jackson will find, said the after effect is surreal, too. Considering all the gold and accomplishments Staley has achieved, her experience of being a flag-bearer is the most popular question people ask to this day.
“It’s so unique. I equate it to a royal wedding because millions of millions of people are watching,” Staley said. “It hit me like a body-blow that I wasn’t ready for because it’s something…You know, you set goals of being an Olympian and winning a gold medal. This isn’t a goal that most people set, to be selected as flag-bearer.
“I’d tell (Lauren) to enjoy it and smile a lot. It’s the most incredible feeling that you’ll ever have. It’s different. It’s not like you’re happy you won a gold medal. You’re leading your country into the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Very few people are able to do that and it’s only fitting that Lauren does it for her country.”
*PHOTO CREDIT: Olympian Dawn Staley carries the flag while leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Stadium in Athens in August 2004 by Robert Gauthier of the Los Angeles Times