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Such Great Heights

After winning a national championship, Dawn Staley ascends to Olympics again

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley (Col ’92) cuts the net after beating Mississippi State during the 2017 Women’s Final Four. She was named head coach for the U.S. national team. Ben Solomon/NCAA photos via Getty Images

For Dawn Staley (Col ’92), who led the South Carolina Gamecocks to the women’s basketball national championship in April, becoming a head coach was not what she envisioned.

Staley, who won 10 gold medals—three at the Olympics—as a member of the USA Basketball team after leaving UVA as one of its most decorated basketball players of all time, was still playing in the WNBA in 2000 when Temple University athletic director Dave O’Brien asked her to take over coaching duties for the struggling Owls program.

“I never saw myself as a coach,” says Staley, 46. “I just didn’t see myself being responsible for young people. Maybe I was too young to see that, because when I started coaching [at age 29], I was closer to my players’ ages.”

Still, Staley found success almost immediately, leading the previously under-.500 Owls to a 19-11 record and an appearance in the NIT. Over the next seven seasons, Temple played in the NCAA Tournament six times, compiling a 172-80 record.

In 2008, Staley took over as head coach at South Carolina, again faced with turning around a fledgling program. By 2014-15, Staley had led the program to its first-ever No. 1 ranking and a Final Four appearance. This year, the team defeated Mississippi State to win the program’s first-ever women’s basketball national championship, in its seventh-straight NCAA appearance.

One major key to her success? A lesson she learned under former women’s basketball head coach Debbie Ryan, while she led UVA to three straight Final Four tournaments.

“I was a player that came from the inner city, and I didn’t have a whole lot of structure as far as basketball,” Staley says. “[Debbie] allowed me to make mistakes instead of trying to change who I was … I have players now that I’m not trying to force them into playing a certain way, but expanding what they already have.”

Next, she will take on arguably her biggest challenge yet. In March, Staley was named the head coach for the U.S. national team and the 2020 Olympics. While balancing her coaching responsibilities at USC, she will lead USA Women’s Basketball at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain, followed by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“As a competitor, as someone that wants to excel in my profession, you’re always looking for challenges,” Staley says. “Once you meet one challenge, you look for the next; for USA Basketball, the biggest challenge and honor is to be the head coach of an Olympic team.”

At the 2012 Olympics, Staley was an assistant under legendary University of Connecticut women’s head coach Geno Auriemma; in 2008, Staley was a member of Anne Donovan’s Olympic coaching staff. The U.S. women won the gold medal both years.

“Dawn has an insight that not many Olympic coaches have had,” former UVA coach Ryan says. “She knows what it’s like to be a pro because she was one not too long ago. She knows how to push the right buttons, what has to happen and when. She’s the perfect person for that job.”