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Stories of empowerment: Basketball champion Lindsay Whalen talks about success through losing


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Two-time Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Whalen knows about success. As one of the most decorated players in women's basketball history, she helped lead the Minnesota Lynx to four WNBA championships and was a key piece in dominant play from Team USA.

Despite all of her wins, the now head coach of the University of Minnesota Gopher women's basketball team also learned from losing.

To celebrate International Women's Day, Whalen sat down with award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien to share her stories of empowerment.

Here is an excerpt from Whalen's conversation with O'Brien, which has been edited and condensed.

What does empowerment mean to you?

If you're trying to empower someone, I think it's generally trying to give them knowledge, things that have worked for you before to let them be their best selves, whether it's in sports, in school, in their daily lives.

Was there anything you learned from losing in sports? People often talk about all the amazing things they won by being great. But are there lessons in something not going well?

Absolutely. I think that throughout a season, those are the times when you really come together as a team, when you have a losing streak, or a time when you weren't able to achieve that goal. Every season when we had a championship, we had a three- or four-game losing streak where we had to figure out, how do we want to turn this around and how do we want to make this season better?

I think when you have that adversity, then you have to come together even more and you find out people's true selves and what they're about when their back's against the wall or when things aren't going well. I think any championship team I've been on, you have to go through that because then you're so much tougher as a team, you're so much stronger after that adversity that you've gone through to be able to know that you might lose. The sun comes up the next day, you still have your same family and friends, and you have to gather yourself and move on to the next thing. I think that that definitely builds a lot of team chemistry and team toughness.

You had two jobs for a while. You were a player in the WNBA, and you were also a coach. How was that?

That was a crazy, crazy summer I had. About three or four weeks in, I kind of knew this was going to be my last WNBA season, just because of the responsibility on each end. To be able to be a starting point guard on a WNBA team and then a head coach of a division one, major university, it was a hectic summer for sure. Thank goodness on each end I had a lot of support and a great staff at the University of Minnesota, and then great coaches as well with the Lynx. They were able to help me through some different things.

I knew I wouldn't be able to do it for more than a year because it's really hard to do those two jobs with one foot in each bucket, but I learned a lot. There were times I didn't know if I could make it through, honestly, because there were lots of ups and downs and times when you feel like you should be doing more in this job or more in that job.

It didn't finish the way we wanted with a championship, but overall, I feel like it was a good summer and I learned a lot about myself for sure.

Was it hard to transition to coach? You were new at coaching.

Yeah. To be basically writing up a practice and putting a team through it rather than going through a practice [as a player] and just doing what your coach says, that's a lot different for sure. But it's been a good transition. I feel really comfortable with what I'm doing.

What would you say is the reason you've been successful? What are the personal attributes that have made you successful?

Just hard work. I got that from my parents. I really love playing the game, and I love sports. So being in the gym and working hard and doing all the extra things is what I tried to do.

And then along the way, being a good teammate, being a good person, doing all those things that my parents taught me. I'm from a big family, so it was always about family and loyalty and teamwork. So now I try to bring that into my professional career as well as in my personal life.

What do you look for in a recruit?

It's a combination. You want them to be talented in doing great things on the court, but then they have to fit into the team and they have to fit into your standards as a team and your values as a team. So we want people to be good to each other, who want to be good leaders, have discipline, and overall, be leaders in our community.

Because we want to win games, we want to do the right thing now for our program, but then you're also always building for the next generation. You're building for the next group, you're building for the younger girls who are at your games, and you always want to be good role models. You always have to be thinking of who's watching and who's out there because you never know who's going to be the next Lindsay Whalen or Diana Taurasi.

You sit on the board of the Empower Leadership Academy for Girls, and you have many jobs, a million things pulling at you. Why is that one of the things that stays on your plate?

Coach [Pam] Borton, she was one of my coaches at the university [of Minnesota] who empowered me. And so I feel like giving back to something that she's really passionate about was a no-brainer. I've been to a couple of her academies, and the way she's able to teach and mentor these young girls and young women is really amazing. They leave feeling more confident, they leave with a new group of friends. It's amazing how good you feel as a person when you leave after doing something like that.

Watch Lindsay Whalen’s interview in the video below and see more from the Stories of empowerment series here.

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