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Donovan, Leslie Lead USA Women's Basketball Team to Beijing Olympics

The U.S. Women's Olympic Basketball team is aiming for a sixth Olympic gold medal since 1976. The Americans will head to Beijing as the clear favorite, but defending the title will be more difficult than in recent years. As VOA'S David Byrd reports, the U.S. women are taking nothing for granted as they face a field that includes Russia, Australia, and host country China.

Team USA is the favorite for the women's gold medal at the Beijing Games, but the Americans know they will not have an easy road. Though coach Anne Donovan and her roster of professional stars from the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association) are looking for a fourth straight Olympic title, she says the Americans have to fight off some tough challengers.

"We're going to be a very competitive, hungry team that has got a great combination of veteran players and a lot of great young talents that are going to blend together and get this done. And it is not going to be easy. We have had tremendous competition with Russia, with Australia, with Cuba recently. So we know we are going into a challenging situation and looking forward to coming away with the gold," he said.

Lisa Leslie of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks is the leader Team USA and has Olympic gold medals from Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), and Athens (2004) as a testimony to her toughness. Another sign of her fortitude is that Leslie got back on the courts only 10 months after taking a year off to give birth to her first child, Lauren, in 2007. Leslie says one of her team's goals is to erase the memory of their last major international competition - a bronze medal at the World Championships in Japan two years ago.

"I am just looking forward to us going back and defending ourselves and our country. It is definitely going to be challenging. The competition is not backing down - Australia which won the world championship, and Russia, who knocked us out of the world championship, as well as Cuba, but we are going to take it one game at a time and the goal is to win gold," she said.

Team USA got a taste of what awaits it in Beijing when it played in the Good Luck Beijing tournament in the Chinese capital in April. The Americans opened the tourney with a 74-60 loss to Australia. The Americans then beat Cuba, South Korea, New Zealand and China, but lost in the final to tournament host China, 84-81. The Americans had beaten the Chinese by 25 points in the semifinal round.

For the Beijing Games, the International Basketball Federation drew the United States in a group with China, African Champions Mali, New Zealand, and two qualifiers to be determined by a FIBA tournament June 9-15 in Madrid.

This year, Team USA has been without one of its defensive stars - Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA's Seattle Storm. The former Texas Tech standout player has been recovering from back surgery and has been struggling with her game. Teammate Katie Smith, a two-time Olympic and two-time World championship gold medalist, says that the team has been able to adjust to Swoopes's absence.

"Obviously we are going to miss Swoopes and her experience and what she brought to the team. But I also think that other people can step into those roles. I think we have a lot of players that will take pride in it [playing defense]. I think we understand that not every game you are going to shoot the ball well and are not going to make all the baskets, but the one thing that you can control is your energy and your effort on defense. And so I think that is really what we are going to hang our hat on," she said.

The American team has added University of Tennessee star Candace Parker, who led the Lady Volunteers to this year's national college championship and was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks.

Lisa Leslie says she is looking forward to honing Parker's game with the Sparks before they come together as teammates during the Olympics.

"When you play basketball it is one thing to [just] play, but [it's even better] when you have the opportunity to get out there on the floor and kind of go through the grinds and know what to do in the moment when you need a basket both offensively and defensively. And I am looking forward to giving her as much knowledge and information I have about the game as well as learning what she knows already. So I think it is going to be a win-win situation for both the Sparks as well as the USA," he said.

The U.S. women open the Olympics August ninth against a qualifier and then play host China in their second game. Team USA faces Mali August 13 and then another qualifier from their group. The Americans end preliminary play against New Zealand August 17. The top four finishers from each of the two groups advance to the quarterfinals. The gold medal match is August 23.

Lisa Leslie, coach Anne Donovan and the rest of Team USA hope they can rise to the challenge and wear Olympic basketball gold for the fourth straight time.