Retrospective: Looking back at the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team’s gold medal-filled journey from 1996 to 2016

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Since 1996, all the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team has known is gold.

Team USA has won six consecutive Olympic gold medals, a streak that started with the Atlanta Games in ′96, and this summer in Tokyo has a chance to make it seven — an unparalleled show of dominance on the international stage.

Before the U.S. begins its quest for its ninth gold medal overall Tuesday at 12:40 a.m. EDT against Nigeria, here’s a look back at the program’s impressive Olympic run, the basketball legends who made it happen and what to expect from Team USA in Tokyo.

1996 Atlanta Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Tara VanDerveer

Top players: Lisa Leslie (19.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Katrina McClain (14.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Teresa Edwards (8.0 apg)

UConn ties: Rebecca Lobo

The skinny: After bronze medal finishes at the 1991 Pan Ams, 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships, USA Basketball overhauled the women’s program. The national team went on a 10-month tour around the world featuring 52 games in seven countries to serve as an extended training period leading up to the Atlanta Games. The tour, which included exhibitions against top U.S. college programs, and a wildly successful Olympic Games capped by a 111-87 win over Brazil in the final set the foundation for the eventual launch of the WNBA.

Quotable: “That team readjusted the balance of power in the world,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma told reporters in 2016. “Starting 20 years ago to today, there’s never been a more dominant team in the Olympics in any sport than the U.S. women’s national team.”

2000 Sydney Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Nell Fortner

Top players: Leslie (15.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Yolanda Griffith (11.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Sheryl Swoopes (13.4 ppg)

UConn ties: Kara Wolters, Geno Auriemma (assistant coach)

The skinny: The U.S. returned half of their gold medal-winning ′96 team (Leslie, Edwards, Swoopes, Ruthie Bolton, Nikki McCray and Dawn Staley) while adding reigning WNBA MVP Griffith to the squad. Team USA defeated Australia 76-54 in front of its home crowd to win the gold medal. The Games marked the fifth and final Olympics for Edwards, who earned four Olympic golds and one bronze in her storied career.

Quotable: “We played hard. We played great,” Leslie said after the gold medal game. “We knew we could do it, but it’s still an amazing feeling to do it on someone else’s home court.”

2004 Athens Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Van Chancellor

Top players: Leslie (15.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Tina Thompson (14.1 ppg), Griffith (8.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg)

UConn ties: Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi

The skinny: The ′04 Olympic team was a mix of vets (a last run for Swoopes, Staley and Griffith) and newcomers like Tamika Catchings and now five-time Olympians Bird and Taurasi. Staley served as the flag bearer for the U.S. delegation, just as Bird would do 17 years later in Tokyo. Leslie led the way again as Team USA’s top scorer and rebounder, and after a 66-62 semifinal win over Russia, the U.S. defeated Australia in a rematch of the 2000 Olympic final to take home its third-straight gold.

Quotable: “So many people said we couldn’t do this, or that we were too old,” Swoopes said after the final. “But when it came down to it, we went to our veterans. We just wanted to embrace this.”

2008 Beijing Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Anne Donovan

Top players: Sylvia Fowles (13.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Thompson (12.8 ppg), Leslie (10.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg)

UConn ties: Bird, Taurasi

The skinny: Another Olympics, another run of dominance for the U.S., which became the first women’s traditional team sport to claim four consecutive golds. The U.S. beat Russia, which had squashed its gold medal hopes in the 2006 World Championships, in the semifinals before demolishing Australia 92-65, their third-straight Olympic final victory over the Opals. As the last Olympics for Leslie, the sole remaining veteran from the ′96 team, and Thompson, a new era of USA Basketball had officially begun, now shouldered by the likes of Bird, Taurasi and Fowles, who remain on the Olympic team to this day.

Quotable: “That’s the thing: It’s passing the torch,” Taurasi said at the time. “Sue and I got to learn from Sheryl and Dawn in 2004. Candace and Sylvia got to learn from Tina and Lisa. It’s a beautiful thing when you can hand down those experiences and still be a part of it.”

2012 London Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Auriemma

Top players: Taurasi (12.4 ppg), Angel McCoughtry (10.9 ppg), Candace Parker (10.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg)

UConn ties: Bird, Cash, Tina Charles, Asjha Jones, Maya Moore, Taurasi, Auriemma (head coach)

The skinny: Auriemma continued the dominance, guiding Team USA to its fifth consecutive Olympic gold, this time with a 86-50 victory over France in the final. While Taurasi emerged as the top scorer for the Americans, Olympic newcomers such as McCoughtry and Charles made their impact felt, too.

Quotable: “It just shows the depth and talent in our country. Women’s basketball, it’s our sport — it’s our sport,” Taurasi said after winning gold. “We grew up playing since we were little and give it every single little bit of energy we have.”

2016 Rio Olympics

Result: 8-0, gold

Coach: Auriemma

Top players: Taurasi (15.6 ppg), Moore (12.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Brittney Griner (9.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg)

UConn ties: Bird, Charles, Moore, Breanna Stewart, Taurasi, Auriemma (head coach)

The skinny: With Auriemma and nine experienced Olympians back, there was no stopping the U.S. in their quest for a sixth-straight gold. Team USA, led by Bird, Taurasi and four-time Olympian Catchings, hit the century mark in six of its eight games. The cherry on top was a 101-72 takedown of Spain in the final.

Quotable: “It’s mind-boggling when you think about it, what this team has been able to accomplish,” Auriemma said after the final. “There is such a level of expectation. There’s such a level of respect for the people at the very top.”

2020 Tokyo Olympics (2021)

Coach: Staley

UConn ties: Bird, Charles, Stewart, Taurasi, Napheesa Collier, Jennifer Rizzotti (assistant coach)

The skinny: The U.S. lost two of its three exhibition games heading into Tokyo (one to the WNBA All-Stars, the other to Australia), but the squad remains the favorite to take home a seventh-straight Olympic gold medal, tying the record set by the U.S. men’s basketball team from 1936-1968. This group will have to work through some early chemistry-building, incorporating more Olympic newcomers (six) than in recent years, but can lean on vets Bird and Taurasi as well as Fowles, Charles, Griner and Stewart.

With this expected to be Bird and Taurasi’s Olympic swan song, the duo can make history by becoming the only basketball athletes to win five gold medals.

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com.

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