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Las Vegas' A’ja Wilson still remembers her 12th birthday party. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing fell on her birthday, Aug. 8, so she decided to have an Olympic-themed celebration around the Games.
From her home in Columbia, South Carolina, Wilson watched the U.S. women’s basketball team win its fourth straight Olympic Gold medal. Now, the reigning WNBA MVP will celebrate her 25th birthday on the day of the closing ceremonies at the Tokyo Olympics, and she hopes she will be wearing a gold medal of her own.
“It would be crazy,” Wilson said. “I don't even know how to even say gold medalist at this point, but that added to my resume would be huge. I was just talking to one of my teammates about it, and we were like, ‘Are we getting the Olympic rings tattooed on us?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, we’ve got to. This is huge.’”
The Tokyo Games may be Wilson’s first Olympics, but it won’t be her first time playing for Team USA’s head coach Dawn Staley – Staley coached Wilson for four years at the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks made it to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament when Wilson was a freshman and won a national championship her junior year. Staley has led the South Carolina women’s basketball team since 2008, and she was named the head coach of the national team in 2017.
“When I was a player for her in college, we would hate it when she would go to USA, because she was so chill and relaxed around them,” Wilson said. “It's good to be on that side of things now, because at the end of the day, we're professionals. We know what needs to be done, so it's pretty cool that I don't have to get the fiercest coach daily — I can get the chill coach.”
Staley said she talked with Wilson early on in her recruiting process at South Carolina about her potential to make a career out of basketball, and she is proud to watch Wilson now bringing those goals to fruition.
"Seeing A'ja's growth on and off the court is really special," Staley said. "Obviously I've got a really great, strong relationship with her. To see her grow and mature into a WNBA MVP, playing in a WNBA championship, being on the Olympic team, all of her partnerships ... I'm truly honored to be her coach and happy to share in the moment and this journey to winning a gold medal."
In January, Wilson’s alma mater honored her with a statue outside of Colonial Life Arena. She remains the most decorated athlete in the history of the Gamecocks women’s basketball program, and she said her time at South Carolina played a significant role in her growth as a player.
“I think I'm really falling in love with who I am,” Wilson said. “In college, I was such a people pleaser. I wanted to be involved in everything, but now I'm loving who I am. I'm loving the people that are surrounding me. I'm just here to have a good time, to just vibe and enjoy my life.”
Wilson has been a star in the WNBA since her rookie season in 2018. She has been an All-Star in every season, except for 2020 when the WNBA did not hold an All-Star Game. She was the league MVP in 2020 and led the Aces to the WNBA Finals.
This season has been no exception. She is third in the league in total points scored, first in free throws made, and second in rebounds. The 15–6 Aces are ranked No. 2 in the league, just behind their old rival, the Seattle Storm, who they lost to in the 2020 Finals. Off the court, Wilson partnered with Mountain Dew to produce a line of her own branded clothing and modeling in the launch of Kim Kardashian’s loungewear line for Team USA.
Although the WNBA’s teams will be separated during the Olympic break, Wilson will play alongside Aces teammate Chelsea Gray at the Games, and Kelsey Plum will also be in Tokyo as a member of Team USA’s 3x3 basketball squad.
“You don't have that fear of the unknown because you already know a lot of these players, but then to have your point guard and also your old college coach there, it's really like a family affair at this point,” Wilson said.
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eaadams6.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Team USA reunites WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson with college coach Dawn Staley