When athletes from all over the world converge on Tokyo this week to compete in the XXXII Olympiad, UConn blue and white will be well represented among them.
Sophomore Aaliyah Edwards, named 2020-2021 Big East Sixth-Woman of the Year in basketball, joins nine alums from UConn women’s basketball (including an assistant coach), two from men’s basketball, two from field hockey, and one from women’s soccer in representing six nations in the Summer Olympics that begin today. UConn will also be represented by its second-ever Paralympian in school history, and alumna Sue Bird will be one of two athletes to serve as flag bearers for the U.S. in the opening ceremonies on Friday July 23 – the first time two competitors have been chosen to lead Team USA into the Games.
Edwards will join Kia Nurse, a WNBA All-Star with the New York Liberty and a member of the Huskies’ 2015 and 2016 NCAA Championship teams, as a member of Canada’s National Women’s Basketball Team. Nurse will be one of the most experienced international competitors in Tokyo. Edwards is the youngest member of Canada’s team.
Gabby Williams, a women’s basketball All-American in 2016-17 and a two-time NCAA champion, will be a member of the French National Team, as she holds dual citizenship in the United States and France.
Cécile Sophie Pieper, who earned a master’s degree in educational psychology as a redshirt senior, will again play for Germany and try to win another Olympic medal to join the Bronze she earned in field hockey during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Roisin Upton, a member of the Huskies’ 2013 and 2014 NCAA Championship squads, is competing as a member of Ireland’s National Field Hockey Team.
Niels Giffey, who played for the Huskies from 2010-2014, won two NCAA championships as a member of the UConn squad, in 2011 and 2014. Having recently signed a contract to play in the Lithuanian Basketball League, Giffey will represent his native Germany in the Olympics. Gavin Edwards, a 6-9 forward who played at UConn from 2006-2010, was awarded the lone “naturalized” player spot on the Japanese men’s basketball team, which received an automatic berth as the host nation. Edwards has spent the last eight seasons playing professionally in Japan, the last four with the B League champion Chiba Jets.
Stephanie Labbé, who played women’s soccer for UConn from 2005-08, will be playing in her second Olympics as a goalkeeper for Canada, after helping that nation win a Bronze medal in the 2016 games.
UConn will be represented at the Paralympic games by Amy Dixon, a 1989 graduate in pharmacy and equine business management. A native of Brookfield, she will on the United States team for the paratriathlon. At the age of 22, Dixon began to lose her vision due to a rare autoimmune disease. It slowly progressed over time, and she currently has 98 percent vision loss.
Once again, the Huskies dominate the USA Women’s Basketball National Team, both in the five-on-five Olympic tournament and the debut of the 3×3 tournament.
Former Huskies teammates Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm and Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury will try to win a record fifth Olympic gold medal with USA veterans Tina Charles of the Washington Mystics (2012, 2015 Olympic gold), and Breanna Stewart of the Storm (2016 Olympic gold), along with Olympic rookie Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx. Jennifer Rizzotti, president of the Connecticut Sun and long-time USA Women’s Basketball coach, is an assistant for head coach Dawn Staley of the University of South Carolina, a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
Stefanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky is competing in the first 3×3 Olympic Tournament with Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings and Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces. Coach of the USA 3×3 team is Kara Lawson, head coach of Duke University, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Former Husky Katie Lou Samuelson was originally selected for the 3X3 team, but had to withdraw due to COVID protocols.
During a Zoom media session in June, Bird reflected on the significance of participating in the Olympics by recalling her return to the United States after winning her first Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games. After the team landed in New York, she boarded a flight to Seattle, and a flight attendant who recognized her asked if she had her gold medal.
“She asked if the pilots could see it,” said Bird, a four-time WNBA champion and 12-time All Star. “Before I knew it that gold medal, literally fresh out of Athens, was being passed up and down the aisles of that airplane. People just want to see it. They want it to touch it. It was in that moment where I realized this impacts Americans and just people worldwide and it has significant meaning behind it. You’re representing all of these people.”
Earlier this week, Bird was chosen, along with baseball player Eddy Alvarez, by Team USA athletes to lead the American delegation at the opening ceremonies. In previous years, only a single athlete had the honor of being a flag bearer, but the policy was amended in 2020 to promote gender parity.
“It’s an incredible honor to be selected the flag bearer for Team USA,” Bird said in a statement. “I know what that means, because I got to witness Dawn Staley go through it when she was selected in 2004. It’s an honor that is bigger than the moment in that you’ve been selected by your fellow Team USA athletes to represent the entire delegation, and it will last forever.”
Taurasi, who became the first WNBA player to score 9,000 points, was asked about the shift team members must make from being competitors during the WNBA season to being teammates in Tokyo.
“It’s really an amazing situation where we’re competing against each other and then just like that, you’re all on the same team working towards the same goal,” said Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion and 10-time All Star. “We’ve had the ability to just make that switch so quickly when we get together with the national team because we know it’s just bigger than us. It’s really a collective effort to win a gold medal. We talk about it all the time. No one remembers who the leading rebounder is, the leading scorer. No one really cares. Everyone’s just worried about going out there, competing, playing at the highest level, and winning a gold medal. That mentality is just instilled from, from you at an early age when we’ve been in USA Basketball.”
In 2016, Collier was the only college athlete remaining in the player pool being considered for the Rio de Janeiro Games (Samuelson was in the pool but injured) when the team was selected. Dolson was also in the player pool. Both will be competing in their first Olympics.
“It’s awesome to see how many UConn players are on the team and how many have been a part of USA Basketball,” Collier told reporters. “I think it’s a huge tip of the hat to the staff at UConn, Coach (Geno Auriemma), CD (Chris Dailey) and everyone that was there. They’ve obviously done a great job. I’m really honored to be part of that legacy.”
Dolson told UConn Today that competing in the inaugural 3×3 competition as a first-time Olympian and being coached by Lawson, her former teammate with the Washington Mystics, will enhance the experience for her.
“It’s an opportunity that I’ve dreamed about to go to the Olympics my whole life,” Dolson said. “Playing with Kara was awesome. But now being able to be coached by her, she’s so intelligent when it comes to 3×3 and the strategy that’s behind it. Working with 3×3 is even more special because it’s the first time it has been in the Olympics, so I’m excited.”