Teresa Edwards: 'You could tell we were about to embark on something huge'
On her 32nd birthday -- July 19, 1996 -- Teresa Edwards made the rounds with President Bill Clinton in Atlanta's Olympic Village, took part in the opening ceremony, recited the athletes' oath, and was left thinking, "This has been one pretty amazing day."
No women's basketball player has spent more time wearing a Team USA jersey at the Olympics than Edwards did. She competed in the Summer Games five times -- 1984, '88, '92, '96 and 2000 -- winning four gold medals and one silver.
They were all special experiences, but the Atlanta Games, held in her home state of Georgia, were the most amazing of all.
"When I first met the president, we were doing a flag presentation in front of all the captains of the various sports teams in an auditorium. He was charming, personable, happy to be around the athletes. My mother loved the man to death, so I had to say, 'Mr. President, my mom wanted me to say hello to you from her.' We went around the village so the athletes could meet and shake hands with him. And that felt great. Then I went back to get ready for the opening ceremony.
"A couple of days later, the president and Hillary showed up in our locker room after one of our games. They were everywhere. It was one heck of an experience. It was wonderful to have them want to be there and spend time with our team."
Edwards was born and grew up in Cairo, in the southwestern part of Georgia, not far from the Florida border. She had played at Georgia for coach Andy Landers, leading the Bulldogs to the Women's Final Four twice.
She already had competed in one Olympics in the United States: the Los Angeles Games when she was just 20 and still in college. Now, after a nearly year-long Olympic preparation tour by the U.S. team, during which the team went 52-0, it was a pivotal time in women's basketball history. Both the ABL and WNBA were set to launch after the Atlanta Games in 1996.
"In 1984, I wouldn't have been able to really define the word 'Olympics.' I just didn't know anything about it. I went to the Olympic trials reluctantly; I think I was a little nervous. Coach Landers gave me a great talk that got me out there. Once I made the team and we went to L.A., at first it still just felt like a really big, fancy basketball tournament. By the time we got to the last game and we were celebrating, I really, really realized what it was all about.
"By 1996, it felt like we had an opportunity to truly do something different: To introduce people in the United States to women's basketball at a higher level so we would have an opportunity to have pro ball here. That was so huge, but it actually wasn't distracting. Because the core of what we do was just play. I thought, 'All I need to do is perform, entertain and have fun.'
"You can sense true greatness in certain people. Once [USA Basketball] assembled our team, you could tell we were about to embark on something huge. Every one of those players was special. We grew up very fast, and we enjoyed each other's company. When we got out on the court, we jelled like peanut butter and jelly. We were smooth."
One of the early stops of the pre-Olympics USA Basketball tour had been in Atlanta, in October 1995. U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer took the players to the Georgia Dome then to see what it would be like competing there the following summer, and had them visualize winning the gold medal. By that point, Edwards already had two golds, but she also had bronzes from the 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championship that still stuck in her craw.
So when she took to the court to start the Atlanta Games, Edwards was pinpoint-focused.
"We'd played together so long, and we were so close to the finish line, I just felt like, 'This is not the time to screw it up.' So once I was inside the lines on the court, I would not look outside the lines. I said, 'I'm not speaking to anyone or looking over, no matter how many times they call my name. I don't care if it's my mom in the stands yelling at me; I've got to stay focused.' The stakes were just too high. Me being the oldest one, the captain, the point guard, that was how I handled it.
"We'd played all these teams so many times that we could have lost a game to them. They knew us just as well as we knew them."
But, in fact, no team could stop the Americans, who won their eight games in Atlanta by an average of 28.6 points. They shot 66.2 percent from the field in beating Brazil 111-87 in the gold-medal game.
Edwards then went through the joy and heartbreak of the ABL, which launched in the fall of 1996 but lasted just two full seasons. Eventually, Edwards played and coached in the WNBA, but she says working with younger kids is her true passion. She and two of her Olympic teammates, Katrina McClain and Ruthie Bolton, have formed a group called Gold Medal Team that gives clinics and works on community projects across the country.
Edwards was the chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team at the 2012 London Games, which gave her an even greater connection to all American athletes. And when she thinks about Atlanta 1996, it's with a mixture of pride ... and a little relief.
"I wanted to kick Brazil's butts to the fullest, and I was totally excited about playing them in the final because they'd beat us in the '94 world championship. I was the 'old lady' who'd been through it before, but winning the gold medal really was a big relief, too. Because mentally, physically, emotionally, it was a big load for me to be able to let go.
"I remember that Olympics that everybody else from the United States was winning, too. Gymnastics was on the other side of [the Georgia Dome] and we saw them walking in and out. We already knew the soccer team, and softball was also doing well. We were well aware what all the women were doing, so when you saw each other, there was this light, this glow, this support.
"It was like, 'There's no stopping us.' We felt the momentum of it, and it felt amazing. We were all in the same spotlight in the same place, and I do think we changed women's sports with those Olympics forever."