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1996 Olympic team continues to impact women’s basketball

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NEW YORK (AP) — There was much more at rise for the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team than just winning the gold medal when they took the floor against Brazil in Atlanta.

An 18-month journey was coming to an end and anything less than a gold medal would have been considered a huge failure for the Americans. But a defeat also could have been a major blow to the two professional startup leagues in the U.S. looming on the horizon after the Atlanta Olympics.

“We knew what was at stake,” backup guard Dawn Staley said. “We knew there was a WNBA in waiting, there was the ABL in waiting. It was all depending on how successful we were as a team. And we also wanted to show America, our nation, that women playing at the peaks of their careers was truly something special.”

They didn’t disappoint the 32,987 fans at the Georgia Dome.

The U.S. cruised to an easy 111-87 victory over Brazil, capping off an 8-0 mark in the Olympics. That was the first of five straight gold medals for the Americans in the Games. That team dominated, led by Lisa Leslie, Katrina McClain and Sheryl Swoopes. They still hold several U.S. Olympic records, including scoring average (102.4), points (819) and assists (207).

“We were on a mission. We trained for a year and half together. That was the first time USA Basketball had ever put a group of women together, and we were on a mission,” said Nikki McCray, currently an assistant on Staley’s coaching staff at South Carolina. “We were machines. Credit Tara VanDerveer and her staff for just getting us ready, and we were unstoppable. To go 60-0? That’s never been done before, and we were not going to fall short of winning the gold medal and to win it was truly remarkable.”

That team, which started training together in 1995, was the foundation for the launch of the ABL and the WNBA. The ABL lasted only two years, but the WNBA is now in its 20th season. Players earned $50,000 the year the toured with the team. They traveled around the world, flying more than 100,000 miles and played 52 games before the Olympics.

“Those players, not only did they represent us on the court in winning a gold medal in such a huge fashion, but they were publicizing and promoting the women’s game and basically got two leagues off the ground and one has withstood everything, the WNBA,” said New York Liberty assistant coach Katie Smith. “So we are indebted to them, a huge `thank you’ for what they did.”

MORE: A look at all 12 players on the Atlanta 1996 team

Because of the 1996 team, Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker is part of a generation of women who grew up with a league to play in — the United States.

“I was on my couch and heard they were starting this new league, and I remember thinking how excited I was,” she said. “I went out to my driveway and started shooting and I no longer had to pretend to play in the NBA, I could pretend to play in the WNBA.”

Parker wasn’t the only current WNBA star the 1996 team influenced. Tamika Catchings was on the USA women’s Junior World Championship qualifying team. After a practice in Colorado she and her teammates were told a surprise awaited them. In walked Leslie, Swoopes, Staley and the rest of the 1996 Olympic team.

“It was so cool,” Catchings said. “It was the first time for me that I saw players like Lisa and Dawn and Sheryl. It was someone that I wanted to be like. A female basketball player to look up to. But watching the Olympic team, I was like, `Oh, my God. One day I want to be there, and I want to represent my country and have that opportunity.”‘

Catchings has been a part of the last three Olympic gold medal winning teams for the U.S. She’ll try and help the U.S. win a sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio Games this summer.

The 1996 team didn’t just leave their impact with the WNBA and the Olympic success. Five players from that squad are coaching in college now — Jennifer Azzi, Staley, McCray, Katy Steding and Swoopes.

“It was a magical year,” coach VanDerveer said. “Although I don’t know that our players would say that. It was really a fantastic trip. I loved the whole experience.”

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Justin Schoenefeld gets U.S.’ first men’s aerials World Cup win in 4 years

Justin Schoenefeld
U.S. Ski & Snowboard
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Justin Schoenefeld ended a four-year U.S. men’s aerials drought with his first World Cup win Saturday in Belarus.

Schoenfeld, 21, hit a double full-full-full in the super final to beat a field that included world champion Maxim Burov of Russia. Burov was fourth, one spot behind another American, Chris Lillis. Full results are here.

“I’m pretty speechless right now,” Schoenefeld said, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “I’m just shocked. It just all came so quick, all of a sudden the two finals were over, and I was on top of the podium. I probably landed two of my training jumps yesterday, but I managed to land all of my comp jumps down to my feet.”

Schoenefeld’s best previous World Cup finish was fourth, in Belarus last season.

Lillis earned the U.S.’ last World Cup men’s aerials victory on Feb. 20, 2016, also in Belarus. The four-year gap between wins marked the longest for the U.S. men since aerials was added as an Olympic medal sport in 1994.

Schoenefeld also became the first American of either gender to win a World Cup aerials event in two years, since Kiley McKinnon on Jan. 6, 2018. That gap was the longest for the U.S. since 2005.

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MORE: Olympic aerials champion retires to coach

Kaillie Humphries wins bobsled world title in first season for U.S.

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Two-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries won a bobsled world title in her first season since switching allegiance from Canada to the U.S., ending recent German dominance.

Humphries, with brakewoman Lauren Gibbs, edged German junior world champ Kim Kalicki by .37 of a second combining times from four runs between Friday and Saturday in Altenberg, Germany.

“I love this track. It’s very challenging, one of the hardest in the world,” Humphries said, according to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton. “It demands a lot of focus, a lot of respect every minute you’re on that track. So to be able to win here, I know the Germans and the spectators, everybody, have worked so hard and this week, no exceptions. I’m proud of all of the girls.”

Canadian Christine de Bruin took bronze for a second straight year. Full results are here.

Humphries, who married a former U.S. bobsledder, was released by Canada in September after filing verbal abuse and harassment claims against a coach, saying she no longer felt safe with the program. As a Canadian, Humphries won 2010 and 2014 Olympic titles, plus 2012 and 2013 World titles.

Humphries joined German Sandra Kiriasis as the only female drivers to win three world titles. She is already the only female driver with multiple Olympic titles.

German Mariama Jamanka, the reigning Olympic champion and defending world champion, finished fourth in Altenberg.

Triple U.S. Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor didn’t compete as she sits out the season due to pregnancy. Meyers Taylor and Gibbs teamed for silver in PyeongChang.

The world championships continue Sunday with the conclusion of the two-man competition. German Francesco Friedrich, eyeing his sixth straight world title, leads after the first two of four runs.

A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

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VIDEO: Steven Holcomb’s mother’s speech after accepting Olympic medals