Awareness came early for Jennifer Gillom.
"I was in the sixth grade when I played my first organized [basketball] game," Gillom recalled. "We won, and I think the score was 16-8 and I scored all 16 points. I think I knew then that I was pretty talented."
Selected as the 1985 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year, Gillom was a member of six U.S. national teams. She won gold medals in the 1988 Olympics, the 1986 and 2002 World Championships, the 1986 Goodwill Games and the 1987 Pan Am Games. In 2009, she was elected to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
This offseason, Gillom joined the Washington Mystics as an assistant coach and will return to the Olympics this summer in London in the same role.
"I always knew I wanted to be an Olympian, but to actually be there and to experience it all, you're just at a loss for words. There is no experience greater than that," Gillom said.
One of 10 children in what Gillom calls "a basketball family," she started playing when she was 8. Ultimately, she and seven of her siblings attended college on basketball scholarships.
"I always played against guys," said Gillom, who will turn 48 next month. "There were never enough girls in my neighborhood that were interested in playing, so my experience came from my older brother. I have a slew of relatives that love basketball, and that's where I feel like I developed my game. We just had basketball in our blood."
Gillom attended Mississippi and spent seven seasons in the WNBA - six with the Phoenix Mercury and one with the Los Angeles Sparks. In Phoenix, Gillom's coach was Cheryl Miller.
"That was a thrill," Gillom said. "Cheryl was such a motivator, such an enthusiastic coach, and that's the way I feel like I am. It helped me as a player. When you see the vein that pops out of her neck when she's screaming and cheering us on, to me, that helps the players. When you show passion, they show passion."
Gillom began her coaching career in 2004 at a Phoenix high school before coming to the WNBA for head coaching stints with the Minnesota Lynx and the Sparks. She also served as an assistant coach on the 2009 U.S. national team, the 2010 U.S. World Championships team and the 2011 Pan American Games team.
When Mystics coach Trudi Lacey discovered Gillom was available after parting ways with the Sparks last season, she called it a "no-brainer" to bring Gillom on board.
"She's well-respected all over the world," Lacey said. "I've known Jennifer for years. She comes from a good family, she's a good coach, a role model and a wonderful person. She has the ability to lift people's spirits and bring positive energy."
Two members of the Olympic team, Chicago Sky forward Swin Cash and center Sylvia Fowles, also like what Gillom brings to the table.
"It's been a pleasure to work with coach Gillom," Fowles said. "She's an awesome post-player coach, but she can also step you away from the basket, which is a great thing for us to expand our game. I enjoy playing for her."
Fowles and Cash are each playing in their second Olympics. Fowles was on the 2008 team; Cash on the 2004 team.
"I love coach Jen. She really has a passion for the game and cares about the players," Cash said. "She's a players' coach. She played the game, she coached the game, so she can always teach a few tricks of the trade, like that little move you want to try to get down when you're 10 years in. I try to pick her brain and learn from her."
Cash and Fowles can be described as role models for young female athletes who aspire to become pros. It's something Gillom regrets not having herself.
"We didn't really have people to look up to when I was coming up, so we looked up to the NBA players," Gillom said.
Thanks to the WNBA, and the success of the women's U.S. Olympic teams, Gillom believes that finally has changed.
"I loved Dr. J. [Julius Erving]. He was the image of what I wanted to be, as a player and a person growing up," Gillom said. "These young girls today have it made. Not only do they get to watch [women pro players] on television, they get to be in their presence at games and different events. They can ask them in person what made them the players that they are. They're getting the treat of their lives."
The U.S. women's team will begin training in D.C. on July 14 and will play an exhibition against Brazil at Verizon Center on July 16, followed by a U.S.-Brazil men's game.
"To go over and play against the world's best, representing your country, that's the ultimate feeling," Gillom said. "The Olympics are an amazing experience. I'm blessed to be a part of it."
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