July 3, 2021 

Diggins-Smith defies odds to make Olympic debut

30-year-old mother joins former Notre Dame teammate Loyd in U.S. backcourt

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Skylar Diggins-Smith brings the ball up the floor in a game against the Washington Mystics on May 18. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Skylar Diggins-Smith didn’t even want to think about making the Olympic team. She didn’t want to build up her hopes only for them to be extinguished by a colossal disappointment.

Imagine the elation when the 5’9 guard learned she would be departing for Tokyo later this month for the one-year postponed Games of the XXXII Olympiad.

“It wasn’t even in my mind,” Diggins-Smith said. “It didn’t even sink in, I got it out of my mind, so I wouldn’t be disappointed. I knew either way, I felt great with the product on the floor. I used to overthink that with USA, and I just hated it because I would think, ‘Am I on the team already?’ Then it got stretched another year, and I was like (sarcastically) ‘Perfect.’

“I just think of all of the work I put in with everybody, but I am proud of myself and with everything I’m representing. This will be the first time I am away from my son for that long, but I am excited for the opportunity. I am so motivated, that’s why I crash in the gym every day. I want to be ready.”

Diggins-Smith will turn 31 midway through the Olympics. Two years after missing the WNBA season for maternity, she is currently scoring nearly 19 points per game and dishing more than five assists per game in her second year for the Phoenix Mercury. A native of South Bend, Ind., she led Notre Dame to three Final Fours.

“It means a lot, where I am from, that doesn’t happen,” she said of South Bend. “There are a lot of negative things, and there are a lot of positive things. I am not the only one with Olympic talent or high-level talent to come out of South Bend. It’s just a testament to my family, my friends, all of my teammates I had along the way, my support staff, Niele Ivey, Muffet McGraw who recruited me, the list goes on and on.

“There are just so many people I could thank who pushed me as a part of this journey. Carlos Knox (University of Cincinnati assistant coach) is somebody who I trained with last year. Right after I had my baby, we would train, trying to get ready for this expanded national team. When I was pregnant, I knew, ‘I’m cutting it close to making the team,’ I just put all of this pressure on myself for this audition.”

While Diggins-Smith might be the first USA Basketball Olympian from South Bend, she is joined as a fellow first-time Olympian in the U.S. backcourt with Notre Dame alumna Jewell Loyd, who was a freshman when Diggins-Smith was a senior in 2013. In addition, their college teammate, Natalie Achonwa, will be playing for Canada for the third time. Previously, 2004 gold medalist Ruth Riley was the lone Fighting Irish woman on a U.S. Olympic basketball team, while Adrian Dantley won gold with the men at Montreal in 1976. Other players who made their Olympic debuts after age 30 for the U.S. include Lindsay Whalen, Asjha Jones, Yolanda Griffith, and Shannon Johnson.

The U.S. team will group in Las Vegas from July 12-18 for the final training before the Olympics, as well as exhibition games with Australia and Nigeria.

“I’m excited about being with team and all being together in one place,” Diggins-Smith said. “We play each other here and there, but that will be my first time together with that specific group of women. That will be my first time being in camp for a while with Dawn (Staley) and Cheryl (Reeve), so just having our whole group together, building that camaraderie and excitement, surrounding those practice games, and I am looking forward to putting the work in and it’s one step closer to getting to Tokyo.”

Sandy Brondello is Diggins-Smith’s coach with the Mercury, but she’ll switch to the opposition should the teams tip off in Tokyo, where Brondello will guide the Australian national team.

“I am super proud of Sky,” Brondello said. “This is something she’s wanted to achieve for so long, and as someone having been to a few Olympics myself, there’s nothing better than representing your own country in the Olympic Games, and she gets to do that now. She’s 30 years old, but she deserves it, she works really hard.

“I think she’s playing great basketball. She’s very dynamic at both ends of the floor. What a unique experience. I’m not worried about the USA yet, I’m worried about the rest of the world at the moment, but hopefully, if we do meet, and it’s in the gold medal game. I’ll deal with her then, but she’s a hard guard, definitely.”

Internationally, Diggins-Smith won gold medals at the 2009 Under-19 World Championship in Bangkok, the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China, and the 2012 FIBA 3X3 World Championships in Athens. The Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo are July 23, and the U.S. women’s basketball team opens with Nigeria on July 27.

Written by Scott Mammoser

Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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