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Summer Olympics 2004

U.S. flag will be in good hands

Published August 13, 2004

ATHENS - She is a woman much like her country. No wonder Dawn Staley has been asked to represent it.

There is a freedom in the way she plays, a richness in the way she wins. She is tough and resilient, ambitious and accomplished. She is strong and forceful, commanding and unapologetic. Her history is one of turning hard times into good times.

All of that considered, could Staley's teammates have handed the American flag to anyone else?

Tonight, Staley will walk into the turmoil. She will grasp the Stars and Stripes, and she will lead the athletes of the United States into Olympic Stadium, and she will brace for whatever reaction that follows.

Early reports suggest it will be unpleasant. Anti-American sentiment has risen to the point where fans jeered when "the United States" was announced at an Opening Ceremonies rehearsal earlier in the week. Fans are likely to express displeasure for everything from America's foreign policies to the sad shape of Hollywood movies.

Given that the woman beneath the flag is 5-6 and 134 pounds, there are those who wonder if she is strong enough to withstand the reaction. Staley's response is to roll her eyes and stare at the doubters.

"I'm from North Philly," she says simply.


In other words, yeah, Staley is tough enough to bear the flag. And, yeah, she's tough enough to bear the furor.

"Anything's possible," Staley said. "If people boo, they boo. I can't affect how other people feel. My life has been tremendous in our country. There have been decisions made that are out of my control, but certainly, I love the country I live in. I'm going to walk into that stadium with dignity."

Here's the thing. If America really wants to defend itself, if it was to reshape perceptions, Staley is a great place to start. She is the best of us, an example that, in America, it is possible to mold a wonderful life from a humble beginning. She is smart, unselfish, talented, passionate, charitable. Which of those qualities should fans boo first?

Staley also is a two-time gold medalist, a two-time college player of the year, a four-time all-star. She is a professional player and a college coach at the same time. She is the head of her own foundation, a master's candidate and an author of children's books. How busy is she? Even when Staley sleeps, her left foot shakes, as if all of her cannot bear to shut down all at once.

"She's a great choice," said Lisa Leslie, her longtime teammate on the U.S. women's basketball team. "She's the general. She's the leader. She makes everyone around her better. I don't think we could have made a better choice."

Neither did the 14 captains of various American sports at the Olympics. They met Wednesday night and compared awards and adversities, charities and contributions. In the end, the group decided Staley was the athlete who should lead them into the stadium.

"With all the struggles we've had, that first step was important," said Brian Olson, the judo competitor. "I think she was the best choice for the rest of us to follow."

Staley was a typical American girl in a typical American projects surrounded by the typical American pitfalls. You could call her a typical American success story, except that it isn't nearly as typical as we would like it to be. Staley grew up in the Raymond Rosen projects on the North side of Philadelphia, and there were bad choices in every direction.

"One bad decision, and I could have ended up pregnant, or drawn toward drugs, or drawn toward gangs," Staley said. "I was lucky enough to make good choices. My mother (Estelle) was a disciplinarian. That helped.

"I feel like I've been chosen. I really do. I don't understand why things happen for me. Why was I the one to get out of the projects? Why was I the one who went to (the University of Virginia?) Why did I win the gold medals? Why was I the one picked to carry the flag? This sums it all up, really. It's exhilarating. It's a fairy tale that ended up in my lap."

She is 34 now, but the days and those decisions of her youth remain fresh in Staley's mind. They are the reasons she established the Dawn Staley Foundation in 1996, after her first Olympics. It is an after-school program in Philadelphia that tutors kids to help them make their first choices. Two members of her first class will attend college this year.

"That had a lot to do with why we picked her," said Justin Wilcox, a diver. "She's given back to the sport. When we made our choice, we wanted someone who represented the Olympic spirit, someone who isn't caught up in fame or the media.

"I think Dawn is the American ideal. She shows that anything is possible. Anything can happen if you have enough heart and enough determination."

Determination? Staley still plays for the Charlotte Sting. She is also in her fourth year of coaching at Temple, where she has averaged 18 victories a season. Oh, and she's here to pick up her third gold medal.

Will the world boo her despite it all? Perhaps.

"I would love for people to understand why I was selected," Staley said. "It's my passion for young people. When I was a little girl, the future looked bleak for me.

"I'm representing the United States. But I'm also representing people who are impoverished, and people who lack opportunity. And that's worldwide. I hope people will look more carefully."

In the meantime, Staley thinks about that first step, about what it will feel like, about what it will look like. Her old buddy Leslie keeps reminding her how embarrassing it would be if she tripped.

Staley laughs.

"The flag is in good hands," she said. "Now, if we had a post person, we would have some question marks. But I'm a guard. I'm used to having it in my hands."

Good hands.

Great choice.

[Last modified August 13, 2004, 00:57:24]

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