Sport

Dual Olympic silver medallist and 2006 world champion and WNBA champion with Phoenix Mercury, Penny Taylor has her sights set on gold in Rio. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.
Credit: BARRY GOSSAGE

Golden dreams: Penny Taylor, 35, basketballer

Growing up in Upwey, Victoria, I had a really great, safe childhood mixed in with a lot of fun. I started basketball when I was four years old when my sister, Heather, who is three years older than me, started playing. I just tagged along and never really stopped.

My dad said I looked at him one day when I was eight and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to play for Australia in the Olympics.’ I don’t remember saying that, but I do remember my goal was always to play for my country and I really looked up to people who did that. That applies to any sport, not just basketball. To me, to represent your country has always been the pinnacle of sport.

My parents were so proud of me. They were both English [Penny’s mother, Denna Noble, died in May 2013 of ovarian cancer; her father, Michael Taylor, died in December 2014 of lung cancer]. They didn’t know much about basketball, but they always wanted me to be someone who did my best. They also had a great sense of humour and taught me how to look at things in a positive and funny way. My mum was the one who always gave me the best advice. When it came to basketball, she said, “Penny, just put the ball in the basket.” It’s simple, but it cut through all the bullshit.

Going to the Olympics is so special to me. It means a lot to hear your national anthem. I’m away from Australia 95 per cent of the year [playing in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury]. It’s an exciting time, too, because Australia really recognises women’s basketball and gives it great support. We feel that love no matter if we’re playing in Athens or China or, this time, Brazil. It’s a shame Lauren Jackson won’t be joining us. Her injuries are so devastating and it was a really hard run for her. The exciting thing about this team, though, is the young talent we have. I feel really lucky I get to play with them. They give me energy and I love their focus.

As you get older, you have more confidence in your abilities. You also realise what you can and can’t control. I still get nervous sometimes, but it’s a different kind of nervousness. When I was younger it was a bit of a whirlwind and I was reacting more.

Yes, we have some outspoken people in the Opals. I think it’s great though. Everyone has a right to their opinion. I think it’s a huge responsibility, but when you feel strongly about something, if you educate yourself on the issues and you choose to speak out about it, then it can be a really beautiful thing. I think they’re brave sometimes in speaking their minds. I’m a bit more private in my life and private in my thoughts. I like to really contemplate things before I form my opinion. We’re all different.

Do I have concerns about going to Brazil? Yes, but it’s not going to stop me going. I’ve tried to find out as much information as I can about the Zika virus. It’s about minimising the risk and doing everything I can to protect myself. On the whole, I think every Olympics brings out the best in people. This will be my third Olympics. In Greece, they didn’t know if it was going to be ready in time. In China there were traffic problems. I feel like those were all resolved and I’m hoping it will be the same situation for Brazil.

Going up against the US is something we always think about. They’re the world champions, the gold medallists and we know that’s a huge obstacle for us. We have our first game against Brazil on their home court. I’m really focused on that game. You have no chance to warm up to a crowd like that. The importance of that game is huge for us and we know if we drop one of those early rounds, we’ll be facing the US earlier than we want to.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had my fair share of injuries. Injuries suck, but in a way I’m kind of proud of them. I’ve always put my body on the line. Physically, I’ve tried to stay in the best shape possible, and to get through the injuries I’ve always had the mindset of moving forward. There’s no point sitting down and crying about it. Every day, you have to get up and do the right thing. It’s tough, it’s boring, but it’s always about getting back on the court.

Where do I consider home? That’s the hardest question you could ask me. My sister and my brother and their children are in Melbourne so I really feel like Melbourne is a home for me. I spent five years in Italy, two in Russia and Turkey. They were my homes for that period of time. Now, I’ve been in Arizona for so long and I feel so comfortable here and have great friends. It changes though. When I retire, I look forward to continuing to learn about basketball, so whether that is coaching or something else, it might take me anywhere and I’m prepared for that.

Losing both of my parents in the past few years has had a huge impact on me. Competing in the Olympics has given me something to look forward to. It gave me a real goal. Looking back at my career, I feel like I’ve done my fair share. I’ve paid the price a little bit, but it’s all been worth it. I’ve been able to play with amazing players and have so much success. The goal for me has always been winning, and when I look back on my career, I think I’ve done that. I feel very proud about it. I’ve won.

 

This week’s highlights…

Rio Olympic Games
Saturday, 9am (AEST), Opening Ceremony
Swimming – medal events, Sunday until August 14, from 11.03am (AEST)
Rowing – medal events, Wednesday until August 13, from 11.22pm (AEST)
Track cycling – medal races, Friday until August 17, from 7.21am (AEST)

• NRL: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Canberra Raiders
Saturday, 5.30pm (AEST), Southern Cross Group Stadium, Sydney

• Rugby: Super Rugby grand final – Hurricanes v Lions
Saturday, 5.35pm (AEST), Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand

• AFL: Western Bulldogs v North Melbourne
Saturday, 7.25pm (AEST), Etihad Stadium, Melbourne

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Golden dreams". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.