TOKYO — Eleven days ago, Jackie Young was getting some well-deserved summer rest in Florida. It was a Saturday night, around 10:30. Bedtime neared. And her phone rang.
“A random call,” she thought, and some people enjoying a rare vacation from a taxing job might just have let the phone keep ringing. Young decided to pick up. Because she did, she’s an Olympic gold medalist.
Young, a rising WNBA star, had flown to Florida for a four-day getaway to relax during the league’s monthlong Olympic break. That night, USA Basketball director Jay Demings called and asked if she’d like to take a different type of trip. Before long, Kara Lawson was on the line too. Lawson was set to coach Team USA’s inaugural 3x3 basketball team in Tokyo starting … next week. The plane left Monday. Would Young want to join?
Demings and Lawson didn’t offer her a guaranteed spot on the four-woman roster that night. But earlier in the day, Katie Lou Samuelson, one of the original four, had tested positive for COVID-19. The Olympic competition started in seven days. The time difference cut the window to 6 1/2. The Japanese government was requiring two negative COVID tests on separate days as a condition for entry to the country. So, Young was told, no guarantees … but if you’d like to be an Olympian, get yourself home ASAP.
The following morning, she hopped on a plane back to Las Vegas, where she plays for the WNBA’s Aces. By the time she landed, Team USA’s Olympic opener was 5 1/2 days away. Kelsey Plum, Allisha Gray and Stefanie Dolson departed the following morning. Young took a COVID test. She started packing. She learned that Samuelson had indeed contracted COVID and been ruled out of the Olympics. Young felt for her, but jumped at the opportunity to join the team. On Tuesday, she boarded a 12-hour commercial flight, and landed in Tokyo on Wednesday, jet-lagged, three days before the opener.
The following day, now officially a last-minute Olympian, she admitted: “I was definitely shocked.”
Then there was business to attend to. A mental switch to flip. Three-on-three basketball is still, at its core, basketball, but it’s a different, faster-paced, more physical version of the game. Many experienced 3x3 players say the learning curve is steep. Young had played it in 2019, and at a few training camps in 2020, but her elite experience was minimal.
But there was no time to sit down and think, to scheme, to settle in Tokyo. The two-games-per-day competition arrived on Saturday. Jill Biden showed up to watch. A week after being on vacation, perhaps planning to watch the Olympics from home, Young was meeting the first lady.
Five days later, she was diving for loose balls on an outdoor court and careening out of bounds to save possessions. She was rushing to embrace teammates at the free-throw line to celebrate an 18-15 final victory over Russia. She was fist-bumping International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
Later, she clasped hands with Plum and Dolson and stepped onto a podium. Dolson placed a gold medal around her neck. She posed for pictures with it. Pretended to bite. Clutched it with her left hand as she walked off into the night.
And to think: “I was on vacation. And then my life changed like that,” she said with a snap of her fingers. “And now I'm a gold medalist. It's crazy how things work out.”
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