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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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Salwa Eid Naser, world 400m champion, provisionally banned

Salwa Eid Naser
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Salwa Eid Naser, the world 400m champion of Bahrain, was provisionally suspended for missing three drug tests in a 12-month span.

“I’ve never been a cheat. I will never be,” Naser, 22, said in an Instagram live video. “I only missed three drug tests, which is normal. It happens. It can happen to anybody. I don’t want people to get confused in all this because I would never cheat.”

Naser said “the missed tests” came before last autumn’s world championships, where she ran the third-fastest time in history (48.14 seconds) and the fastest in 34 years.

“This year I have not been drug tested,” she said. “We are still talking about the ones of last season before the world championships.”

The Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles doping cases for track and field, did not announce whether Naser’s gold medal could be stripped.

“Hopefully, it’ll get resolved because I don’t really like the image, but it has happened,” she said. “It’s going to be fine. It’s very hard to have this little stain on my name.”

Naser, the 2017 World silver medalist, upset Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas for the world title in Doha on Oct. 3.

The only women who have run faster than Naser, who was born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother who sprinted and a Bahraini father, were dubious — East German Marita Koch (47.60) and Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova (47.99).

“I would never take performance-enhancing drugs,” Naser said. “I believe in talent, and I know I have the talent.”

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When Laurie Hernandez winked at the Olympics

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Blink, and you may have missed one of the social-media-sensation moments of the Rio Olympics.

Laurie Hernandez, then 16, was the youngest woman on the U.S. Olympic team across all sports. She was about to start arguably the most important floor exercise routine of her life.

So, she winked.

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “I Got This,” a nod to what she told herself before her balance beam routine earlier that night. “So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment.”

The U.S., on its fourth and final rotation, already had the team gold all but locked up. Knowing she was nervous, Hernandez’s teammates confirmed to her that they were a few points ahead.

Then Hernandez heard the beep, and it was time to go. She was in the view of an out-of-bounds judge at the Rio Olympic Arena.

“Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink,” she wrote. “Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone [Biles] and Aly [Raisman] compete in their all-around finals and she said, ‘Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.’ I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, ‘Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.’ That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was ‘Oh my goodness.'”

Hernandez, a New Jersey native, finished the Olympics with a team gold and balance beam silver.

She took more than two years off before making a comeback in earnest last year, announcing she planned to return to competition this spring under new coaches in California. Now that’s on hold given the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.

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