Dawn Staley aims for ‘generational impact’ ahead of South Carolina’s fourth Final Four appearance

Dawn Staley
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When South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was named Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year for the second time this week, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer was quick to share the spotlight.

“It really does take a village,” said Staley, who called associate head coach Lisa Boyer and assistant coaches Fred Chmiel and Jolette Law to stand beside her while posing with the trophy.

RELATED: South Carolina defeats UConn to win 2022 national title

Staley’s humble but significant gesture is indicative of the 51-year-old’s “don’t know how else to do it” persona, which is characterized by this signature move: Lifting up those around her.

But no deflection can dim the glow of Staley’s achievements ahead of her fourth Final Four appearance with the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks, who’ll face fellow top seed Louisville on Friday night in Minneapolis. She kicked off the season by securing an historic seven-year, $22.4 million contract, making her the highest-paid Black head coach in women’s college basketball and one of the highest-paid coaches in all of women’s college basketball, and to celebrate, she sent a piece of South Carolina’s 2017 national championship net to every Black female basketball college coach in Division I (nearly 70).

South Carolina’s second consecutive bid for a national title could provide the perfect ending to a 29-2 season that featured a dazzling campaign by junior forward Aliyah Boston, who was named the Naismith Women’s National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. It also could serve as a bit of personal revenge after last year’s heartbreaking semifinal loss to Stanford. With the Gamecocks down by three with less than two minutes remaining, a missed kicked-ball call resulted in a fast-break bucket for the Cardinal, who won 66-65 and went on to win the championship.

“Last year is in the past,” Staley said Tuesday, displaying a Zen-like approach to the controversial call. “It is there as part of your journey. So good, bad or indifferent, it’s a part of who we are. Like it was supposed to happen. Our paths are divinely ordered, so we’ve got to take the good and the bad and the disappointments just like we take the celebratory experiences.”

Making those experiences a reality for her players are part of Staley’s mission.

“I want to be a dream merchant for young people because my basketball career as a player was – my cup runneth over, and I wanted other people to feel that,” she said.

Staley’s own story is one that bears repeating ahead of South Carolina’s bid for a second national title. She burst onto the scene during her four years as a player for Virginia, where she was a two-time Naismith Player of the Year and led her team to three Final Four appearances – including the 1991 national championship game. She elevated her legacy as a professional, winning three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA in 1996, 2000 and 2014, and her eight-year WNBA career was highlighted by a trip to the 2001 finals with the Charlotte Sting.

But Staley’s legendary status was galvanized after she found her calling as a coach. At the 2000 women’s Final Four in Philadelphia, Staley was on hand as a spectator when she was approached by Temple University’s athletic director, Dave O’Brien, who made several attempts to woo her into coaching. She was finally swayed after O’Brien changed his tactics, challenging Staley to identify ways to improve the program.

2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball: Final Four schedule, March Madness results and scores

That fall, while still playing for Team USA as well as the WNBA, Staley took her place at the Owls’ helm and led them to their first winning season in 11 years and first postseason appearance – at the 2001 WNIT – since an NCAA tournament appearance in 1989. Staley’s teams advanced to the NCAA tournament six of the next seven years, highlighted by a 2004-05 squad that won the Atlantic 10 regular-season and conference titles and went a perfect 15-0 in conference play.

Staley admits that she was “blind” to the fact that she was a Black woman trying to make her way in the collegiate coaching ranks, and simply approached her job with the same love of the game she had as a player.

“You get into coaching, and I truly believe other people make you look at the color of your skin, by how they treat you, by how you aren’t top-tier when it comes to opportunities to coach,” she reflected. “Somebody has really failed for Black women to get an opportunity, and then when they get an opportunity, if they fail, you’re reduced to being an assistant coach. You don’t get recycled to another head coaching position.”

Her perspective sharpened as her coaching gig turned into a full-time career following her retirement from the WNBA in 2006. She left Temple for South Carolina in 2008 and has reached the NCAA Tournament 10 times with the Gamecocks, guiding the program to its first Final Four appearance in 2015, then again in 2017 and 2021. Last summer, Staley coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, winning all six games and extending her record to 45-0. Staley also coached Team USA to gold in the 2018 World Cup in Spain as well as the 2019 and 2021 FIBA AmeriCup.

“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” said Staley, who on Thursday was honored with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Pat Summitt National Coach of the Year award. “I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m comfortable being uncomfortable and making other people uncomfortable when it’s for the right thing.”

Of the 14 SEC women’s basketball programs, five are coached by Black women, and Staley revealed the group has formed an informal network of mentoring and solidarity via group texts and zoom meetings.

“We talk about it. We lift each other up,” said Staley. “When anybody gets a big win, we’re texting, because we know that if we don’t – if we aren’t successful, we go back down – got to wait another 10 years to get another go at it.

“I just feel like Black female coaches have been the voiceless, the ones that don’t really get the opportunity to fail. It is win at all costs, and if you don’t, don’t seek another opportunity.”

Staley’s knack for building relationships has undoubtedly been the “secret sauce” behind Gamecock fans’ overwhelming support for their women’s basketball program. South Carolina has led the nation in attendance every season since 2014-15, averaging more than 10,000 fans in 92 consecutive regular season home games. A sellout crowd of 18,000 was on hand for this year’s home matchup vs. Tennessee.

“We took matters into our own hands,” Staley explained Thursday. “We invited our fans into our offices. We create opportunities for them to get to know us as people, and then in return, word of mouth, they bring friends. They buy season tickets just to have, just to invite people to our games. … We give our fans access to us, and in return, they fill our arena.”

Plenty of South Carolina fans are expected to be on hand Friday at the Target Center, where the Gamecocks are the odds-on favorite vs. the Cardinals. But Louisville comes in with its own star in sophomore Hailey Van Lith. The 5-7 guard is the first Louisville player with four consecutive 20-point games in the NCAA tournament, and her 22-point performance in the Elite Eight carried the Cardinals’ offense in their 62-50 win over Michigan.

Whether or not the weekend ends with Staley donning another “netlace” – she wore the 2017 championship net as an accessory so often that her players gave it a nickname – Staley already has an idea of how she wants to be known regarding this chapter of her career.

“I want to be remembered as an odds beater – that’s one,” she said. “Then the other … I think what I want is to have generational impact. That’s what I would like to have: generational impact. Not to just impact my current players and my players, but to have impact on people, who will have impact on people, who will have impact on other people.”

NCAA Women’s Basketball – Final Four Schedule

Women’s basketball semifinal round games on Friday, April 1, 2022:

Teams

Time (ET)

TV Channel

Location

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Louisville 7 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 UConn 9:30 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota

2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship Game – Sunday, April 3, 2022

Teams Time (ET) TV Channel Location
TBD vs. TBD 8 p.m. ESPN Minneapolis, Minnesota

MORE WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Stanford, South Carolina book tickets to Final Four

Protect the dream: Paralympic champion Mallory Weggemann on her journey to motherhood

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At the 2022 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships late last year, five-time Paralympic medalist Mallory Weggemann took on a new challenge: competing at 26 weeks pregnant. For the latest edition of Chasing Gold (Sunday, January 29th at 2pm ET on NBC), Weggemann shared her experience balancing competition with her plans for parenthood, both as an elite athlete and a woman with a disability. For On Her Turf, she shares more on that journey in her own words.

When news broke that the 2020 Paralympic & Olympic Games would be postponed a year to 2021, I felt the weight of what that meant for my personal life – a delayed Games meant the dream my husband and I held so close in our hearts of becoming parents would also be postponed. For the first time in my career, I found myself asking: To what end? How much more was I willing to sacrifice for my athletic career?

I have loved the sport of swimming since I first got behind the starting blocks when I was seven years old. It is the place that welcomed me home after my paralysis at the age of 18 and in 2009, when I was 20 years old, I was proudly named to my first national team. I never anticipated the places that sport would carry me, let alone to the top of the Paralympic podium. But on that day in March of 2020, I felt torn. I knew a year wasn’t just simply another 365 days. For my husband and I, it could determine whether we’d be able to have children of our own.

In 2017, the year after our wedding, we found out that we are among the 1 in 8 couples in the United States that are impacted by infertility. Following medical testing, we learned that my husband has azoospermia. In nonmedical language: he has significantly decreased sperm production, and without surgical intervention his sperm count is zero.

One year can last an eternity when you feel as if time isn’t on your side, but my husband and I chose to stay steadfast and hold onto this dream we’d been pursuing for nearly four years. With that decision, and thoughts of our Little One in our hearts, we decided that the journey to Tokyo was a family affair, even if our family wasn’t physically complete just yet.

Also from On Her Turf: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“Protect the dream” became our motto – it was our rallying cry as we kept these two dreams alive simultaneously: parenthood and elite competition. I first became a Paralympic gold medalist at the London 2012 Games, but after a near career-ending injury in 2014 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to my left arm, I fell short of a medal in Rio. Our fight to make it back atop the Paralympic podium had been over 8 years in the making. But going into Tokyo, we also knew each day we continued in that fight, we did so at the risk of losing our window to have children of our own. So, we held onto hope, filled each day with love, and made a conscious decision to protect the dream at all costs.

In September of 2021 I returned home and as my husband and I embraced for the first time in nearly a month I shared with him the two golds and silver that we won in Tokyo. While one dream was realized, we immediately transitioned to continue in our effort to protect the other as we fought to become parents. Within a month we were starting the process to begin IVF, a journey that was unlike anything we were prepared for.

Navigating through infertility felt daunting on so many fronts. My husband was looking at a world that had built up so much unnecessary stigma around male factor infertility, while I was figuring out how to navigate planning IVF cycles around my athletic career. And as a couple, we faced the reality that while we were committed to this journey, there was no guarantee.

Very quickly, we found ourselves in the depths of IVF: a process that brought two egg retrievals, a micro-TESE surgery for my husband, hormonal treatment for endometriosis, the grief that comes with navigating an unsuccessful transfer, a mock transfer cycle, an operative hysteroscopy and, to date, over 700 injections. Yet here we are, all these months later, joyfully preparing for the arrival of our Little One in March.

Throughout this journey we have been vocal about our infertility, because for us we intimately know that representation matters. I, a woman with a disability, don’t see women that look like me celebrated as mothers in our society. As a female athlete, there is the added challenge of timing something as unpredictable as infertility and motherhood within a quad between Games, let alone one that’s now three years rather than four. That’s not to mention the fact that many female athletes still feel the pressure to keep our family planning private out of concern that it will impact our careers. My husband, a man with infertility, isn’t represented in the conversation of reproductive health. We know we aren’t alone. There are other individuals with disabilities yearning to become parents. Other female athletes who are looking for a path forward to show them it doesn’t have to be an either/or when it comes to their athletic career and desire to become mothers. And the truth is, male factor infertility makes up 50% of the cases of infertility among couples. So, we have decided to share – because you can’t change the narrative if you never speak truth to it.

We know the journey is far from over – while we are expecting our first child, we are simultaneously laying plans to give ourselves a chance at another child in the future, because the reality of infertility is that you have to live in the simultaneous. And as we eagerly plan for Little One’s arrival, we also do so in a world that wasn’t built for a family unit like ours – society still has a hard time envisioning me, a woman with a disability, as capable of being a mother. So not only are we learning what adaptive parenting will look like – we are doing so in a world that is still filled with unconscious bias towards disability. And, as exciting as it is that the Paris 2024 Games are next year, in many ways I still feel the pressure as a female athlete to remind people that becoming a mother this year doesn’t mean I am retiring.

When I first made the U.S. national team at the age of 20, I never imaged I would be named to my 13th national team at 31 weeks pregnant. That is only possible because of the fierce women who came before me and while it is remarkable to see how far we have come, the conversation is far from over. What does that mean: It means we’ll keep having it. And representing that conversation will be the fuel that motivates me as we continue to “protect the dream,” fighting to return to the top of the Paralympic podium. The only difference this time is that Little One will be physically with us, in the stands in my husband’s arms, cheering mama on as I get behind the starting blocks.

U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin Q+A: Two-time Olympian gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

Maggie Voisin (USA) during the freestyle skiing-womens slopestyle qualification of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games
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Warning: This piece contains discussion around suicide.

Growing up in Whitefish, Montana, put freeskier Maggie Voisin on a nearly predestined path to become some sort of professional skier. It’s a path she loves, by the way, and one that she’s backed up with a slew of notable results during her nearly 10-year career on the U.S. Ski Team.

Since joining the U.S. team as a 15-year-old, Voisin’s been named to three U.S. Olympic teams, and she’s posted two top-five results in freeski slopestyle in two Winter Games appearances, finishing fourth in 2018 in PyeongChang and fifth in 2022 in Beijing, where she also placed 15th in freeski big air. She’s notched 15 World Cup top 10s, including a slopestyle win at Mammoth in 2017 and five other podium finishes, and she’s competed in three world championships, recording two top 10s in big air, placing ninth in Aspen in 2021 and eighth in 2019 at The Canyons (now Park City Mountain) in Utah.

Ahead of her 11th X Games appearance this week in Aspen, Colo., the two-time X Games gold medalist (she won the freeski slopestyle at Aspen 2018 and Norway 2020) talked with On Her Turf about the upcoming season, her blossoming film career and coming back from a string of heartbreaking injuries — including fracturing her right fibula during a training run at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when she was just 15. This week also marks the two-year anniversary of her brother Michael’s death by suicide, and Voisin gets candid about her loss, the lessons she’s learned, and the perspective shift she experienced during her most recent trip to the Olympics in Beijing.

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Heading into your 11th X Games, could you share some overall thoughts about the event and what X Games means to you?

Maggie Voisin: It’s really hard to put into words, what X Games means, especially as an action sport athlete. It’s the pinnacle of action sports, and since I was 12 years old, it was my dream to be in the X Games. And here I am, you know? My first X Games was nine years ago, in 2014, and it’s just crazy to think that my dream has come true. And I’ve been able to relive it year after year. So, coming into Aspen, I always try to hold on to like that gratitude of what X Games has meant to me as a child and what it’s meant to me throughout my entire career.

OHT: This is your first competition since the Olympics last February… What did you work on in the offseason and what might 2023 look like for you?

Voisin: Last year was just a wild season. I was trying to qualify for the Olympics, I was also kind of nursing a couple injuries. So mentally, emotionally, physically, last year was a lot. I’m super grateful. It was a lot, though. This past offseason, I needed to take some time to reset, and I was home in Montana. I took a bulk of time off from training. But I started training again in September. … I don’t want to take too much time off, but really just giving myself some time and space [before heading] into this season. X Games will be my first event of the season, and then hopefully do a couple more World Cups. But also, I’m filming this year for a ski movie with one of my teammates, Colby Stevenson, [freeskier] Tom Wallisch. It’ll be a Good Company movie. It’ll be a mix of backcountry skiing, hitting jumps, snowmobiling. I’m really just trying to diversify my career and get myself into a whole new world. So, this year is really exciting.

OHT: I had noted that there were at least two films that you’re in this year, “Mavericks” and “75 years.” Can you tell us a little more about your burgeoning film career?

Voisin: Honestly, since my career started, I always knew that I wanted to film. … I’ve done a little bit of filming in the past. In 2020, I did a personal project called “Swiftcurrent.” I was filming in between competing and mostly backcountry skiing. That was my first-time little project, and I’m very, very proud of it. For me, it felt like the true beginning of my film career. But headed into the next several years, it’s something that I want to dive into a lot more. It’s a whole new world, there’s so much to learn. I feel like a newbie, which is fun. It’s fun to feel like you’re restarting in a totally different way.

OHT: Rewinding a little, you’ve suffered a string of injuries starting with the heartbreaking incident in Sochi in 2014, fracturing your right fibula on a training run. But I read you found some positives in the experience and ended up staying in Sochi with your teammates. When you look back on that experience, what stands out for you?

Voisin: Oh man, I was 15 years old. I really did the best that I could. … It was absolutely devastating. I felt like I was on fire. I had that rookie fire in me and I wanted to give it my all. I really felt like I had the potential to do amazing in Sochi. And then that happened, and it felt like my world came crashing down. But once I was able to kind of step out of that grief, and really reflect on how far I’d come in that season – that’s what kind of carried me through. Also, that injury kept a fire within me throughout the four years leading up to the 2018 Games, of wanting to get back and make that Olympic team and prove that I still had it.

OHT: You actually did come back that same calendar year, and in your first contest, you get injured again. What happened?

Voisin: So after my crash in February 2014, I didn’t need surgery, which was great, but I did have a small meniscus tear on my right knee, so I ended up getting a scope. The recovery mirrored each other – the ankle and the knee – so I was healthy by summer and came back and was skiing great. Then our first contest of the year, December 2014, I was that the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., at the time. I had qualified first into finals, and then the next day — my first run in finals — I tore my ACL on my left knee. The day before my 16th birthday. Not a very sweet 16.

OHT: A year of some real highs and lows. How did you get through that year in particular?

Voisin: Honestly, I just had this fire within me and – above all – my love and passion for skiing. I knew what I was capable of achieving and I really felt like I was rising to be one of the best woman slopestyle skiers at the time. It’s devastating when you get an injury, and I feel like maybe this is instilled through my family, but I just always find the positive perspective. For me, it was this realization of, “Yes, this is a bummer. I felt like I was really going to be on top that season. But at the same time, I want to come back, and I want to come out of this stronger.” That’s just kind of where my motivation during rehab and for getting back on snow came from. And I’ve really been able to prove to myself, time and time again, through all my injuries that I have come back stronger.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Slopestyle gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott charges into X Games with big new trick and World Cup momentum

OHT: Looking back to your childhood… You have a twin brother, Tucker. What’s it like being a twin?

Voisin: I absolutely love being a twin. And we were super close growing up. Then my older brother, who is two years older, and then I have a sister who’s eight years older. I spent more time in my younger years around my brothers. I was total tomboy – I had to keep up with them, but I was also very competitive with them, which I think is where I got my kind of daredevil, fearless attitude. But having a twin is very special. We’re so different and unique, but we’re very, very close.

OHT: I read you started skiing at age 2. Were your parents big skiers?

Voisin: My mom’s an incredible skier. My dad is a ski bum through and through. He lives for his powder days, and he’s the one who really showed me and taught me my love for the mountains. I’m so grateful that some of my favorite days are out with my dad – just him and I. My parents are so supportive. You know, if we didn’t love skiing that would have been all right. but at the same time, we were gonna be raised to skiers. Being from Whitefish, Montana, in the winter, to be honest, there’s not much else to do. So, I think I was destined to be some sort of skier.

OHT: This week marks two years since the loss of your older brother, Michael. I’m so sorry for your loss. It was both heart-wrenching and inspiring to read some of your previous responses when you’ve addressed the subject, and it seems like you have a very clear message about how you’ve dealt with grief and loss. Could you share more about that?

Voisin: I’d never lost anyone that close to me in my life before, and to lose a brother, one of my best friends, is just a totally different story. That season, I was coming back from a knee surgery in August of 2020, and it was the week of X Games, and I just had to step away from skiing, be there for my family, and grieve, and grieve as a family. So, I took time off and took it easy that season, and I was home a lot just with my family. It was a really special time as well, which is crazy to say, but my family grew so immensely close, and I’m very grateful for that.

I also realized, too, that my brother wouldn’t want me to keep living in pain, so I just had to remember kind of what life is about, and that I just wanted to live it to the fullest. Gosh, he was such an incredible human being; he truly was a hard worker. Everyone’s always like, “Oh, you’re the Olympian, you’re the X Games medalist.” And I say, “Well, that takes a lot of work, but you have not met my brother, Michael. He is so dedicated and does it with such a passion and so much kindness.” And I really just wanted to embody what he was, and what he meant to me. And that was just going out, giving it my all, but still just putting my heart into it — everything I have — and just being genuine and kind and sharing that with the world. And I think, for me, that’s what I try to hold on to.

OHT: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s really powerful. I also read you said it made your Olympics experience last year much more special — that you were looking at things through a different lens. Could you explain that more?

Voisin: I think anyone who’s experienced a loss in their life, they understand that it’s like a whole, oh-my-gosh moment of how precious life really is. You never know when you’re not going to have another day or whatever. For me, it was about realizing how grateful I was, everything that I have been through to get there, and to enjoy it for what it is and to live in the present moment.

… I’ve come back from a lot of injuries, but is grief is a totally different beast. And I think I was just really trying to soak it in, and also really appreciate the [people] that I’m around, my friends, and really let them know how much I appreciate them, that I’m there for them, and how grateful I was to be experiencing this moment with some of my best friends. I think that’s also part of [healing], too, is letting these important people in your life know how much they mean to you.

OHT: I think that’s a really meaningful message. And it appears your peers feel just as fortunate to have you in their lives, having honored you with the 2023 Buddy Werner Award for sportsmanship this past July. What did that award mean to you?

Voisin: I have always said that my career, the medals and such, are super important – that’s always the goal — but at the end of the day, if I can inspire somebody else, and if the people around me can feel that love and that passion that skiing brings me, and if that that can ignite a fire in them to go out and do what they love with so much passion, then that’s all that matters. I can remember so vividly saying that when I was 15. Wow, that’s nine years ago! I feel like I’ve really, really held to what that meant for me.

So to get this award really has proven and kind of shown that my ultimate goal in skiing – to be an inspiration – at least I have been living up to that. Also, it’s really inspired me to continue to be that person for everyone I meet as well, to just try and be a light. Even if I’m just opening a door for someone, or giving someone a smile – if it’s true, the little things matter. It can change someone’s day around.

OHT: Speaking of inspiration, you award an annual scholarship to young athletes in Whitefish Freestyle Ski Team program, covering their fees for their team membership and the cost of a season pass to Whitefish Mountain Resort. I bet you’ve gotten some great essays from prospective recipients. What was your motivation for creating the scholarship?

Voisin: Oh, they’re so adorable. I can only imagine being that young and writing an essay. But honestly, the passion and the excitement that these kids put into it just warms my heart so much. I’ve been doing this the past several years, and it’s just so important for me to give back to the community that gave me everything, especially the local freestyle team. That’s where it all started for me. I always knew that I wanted to do something to give back, and just starting in a small way, has been so special. I’m still just in the beginning stages of where I can possibly take it but starting there, by giving a kid an opportunity by paying their fees and paying for their season pass, it just it makes me feel so grateful.

And then those essays, oh my gosh, they tear my heart apart. It’s so fun to hear how they perceive skiing, and it just reminds me of when I was a kid and I’m like, “Yes, OK, yes, I’m gonna hold on to what this kid said.” I’m gonna remember that when I’m out skiing, that I got started in this sport because I love it, because I get to be out with my friends, enjoying the mountain. There are so many wonderful things that it’s brought to me. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255), text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team