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Stefanie Dolson on winning gold in Tokyo, the challenges of 3x3 basketball, and more

Sometimes overshadowed on the Chicago Sky, Stefanie Dolson stepped out onto the international stage this summer, winning a gold medal in Tokyo.

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USA Womens National 3x3 Team Practice Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The debut of 3x3 basketball at the Summer Olympics was a rousing success, especially for the United States women’s team composed of Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. The Americans went 8-1 and came home with the event’s inaugural gold medal.

The pace of the game seems suited for quicker guards, and yet 6’5 Dolson — known as Big Mama Stef — played some of the finest basketball of her career en route to the gold, making 72.3 percent of her field-goal attempts and just being a general nuisance for any opponent trying to get to the basket.

Dolson spoke to SB Nation about what it took to winning gold and the role her UCAN energy products played in getting her to her physical peak.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

SB Nation: How does it feel to be an Olympic gold medalist? Has it sunk in yet, do you call yourself that when you answer the phone? How does it work?

Stefanie Dolson: I don’t. I got to see Allisha (Gray) yesterday, we played Dallas. And I said, “What’s up Gold Medal Lish?” cuz she said she only wanted to be referred to as that. I did not, but it’s been really great. I mean, my family, friends, my teammates, it’s just, I don’t know, just overwhelming with how much love and support and excitement everyone’s given me. So it’s definitely set in. I think at this point now it’s like, I almost have to put it to the side because now I’m focused on just our Chicago games, but I mean it’s pretty amazing. I still look at it, I’m like, wow, that really happened.

SBN: Do you have any special plans for the medal?

SD: I don’t think so. I’m gonna get a tattoo though, I just have to get it. But not the medal. I mean, I’m trying to figure out what to do with it, to be fair.

SBN: are you gonna get the Olympic rings tattoo?

SD: Yeah, I’m thinking about getting the rings or actually getting the Olympiad that’s on the back, like the angel-looking thing. I saw a tattoo like that, it looked really cool, so up in the air.

SBN: I wanted to ask you a little about 3x3 because I know USA, obviously when you’re part of — especially the women’s basketball program — for five on five, there’s an expectation of winning, and I was curious if you guys had that same sort of expectation going in for 3x3 given that it was a new tournament.

SD: Yeah, I think there was because, you know, not only just USA basketball, but just the WNBA, like all of basketball in the U.S., there’s an expectation of being really great at it. So for us it was just like, we’re WNBA players. We almost put on ourselves that pressure, like we need to be the best. So going into it I think I was really nervous, I mean the first game of the Olympics I was — we were all freaking out. I was thinking it’s so different compared to the qualifying tournament. So there’s definitely that pressure and expectation of wanting to be the best, wanting to win the gold. It was there.

SBN: What was the day like when you guys found out that Katie Lou Samuelson wasn’t gonna be able to come and Jackie (Young) was gonna be taking her place?

SD: That day was just a roller coaster. It all kind of happened so fast, too, you know, finding out that she tested positive and then next it was like, “okay well now what do we do?” And then an hour later, we’re like, okay Jackie Young’s on the plane right now coming, like straight from a vacation. So it was really sad, my heart just went out for (Katie Lou) and it just broke for her because I know how hard she worked to get us to that point and how much time she put into it. So it was really really hard, but Jackie was amazing to just come straight from vacation. She knew all of the plays the first day, we worked out with her and stuff, so I was just really impressed with the way that she was able to jump right into it with us.

SBN: So it doesn’t seem like there was much of an acclimation process once Jackie got there?

SD: We didn’t have time for it. She had to be acclimated quickly.

SBN: I read about all the physical transformations that you had to undergo to get ready for this. I know you said you stopped drinking and you lost all this weight — did you also have to change the way you play your game to be ready for 3x3, or was it more just like getting ready for the speed?

SD: Yeah, I think it all kind of intertwines. For me, honestly my entire career, my biggest battle has been conditioning, you know my ability to be quick on my feet and just agile. So, after quarantine and all that stuff, being at home, it was rough, and then I got injured. So I had to kind of change everything: my diet, my lifestyle. I focused so solely on basketball, I put everything aside because of 3x3, but also because of, you know, the WNBA. Either way it was for my career. And part of it was 3x3 because the way the game is played. It’s so quick. Half the time I’m guarding a guard. If I didn’t do that, I don’t know that we would have been as successful as we were.

SBN: How did the UCAN factor into your physical transformation, for lack of a better word?

SD: Yeah it’s been perfect, honestly. It goes right in with kind of that just healthy living, that healthy lifestyle, because it is natural and plant based, and it’s zero sugar. A lot of the things that I usually use are like really high in sugar and I’ll usually crash, but when I’m training, and even the last few games here in the WNBA, I’ve been using the UCAN during the games with the electrolytes and everything and it’s just like, I feel a difference because I don’t crash. And then on top of that I don’t feel kind of that guilt of like, ughhh I just had so much sugar with whether it’s like Gatorade or whatever you’re drinking or eating. So the UCAN products have been kind of that perfect product to fit into this new lifestyle, if you will.

SBN: You’d been using them for a little while before you got to Tokyo?

SD: Yeah, a couple of weeks.

SBN: And then, obviously, you must have felt the difference while you were in Tokyo because you killed it.

SD: We were training, we were doing heat training in Vegas, to kind of prepare for Tokyo because we knew how hot it would be. So I was using the products there in Vegas to kind of stay hydrated, and protein-wise because the food they had for us was pretty heavy most of the time, so I was able to use the UCAN products for protein before we were going to work out.

SBN: What was the most challenging part of that experience in Tokyo? Was it the heat or the diet or the caliber of the opposition, like what really stuck out to you?

SD: I just think it was all of it. I don’t think we all were fully prepared for it until we got there, you know, even the heat training, it was like oh it’ll be fine, and then we get there and it’s not only the heat training, but the sun is, you’re literally shooting with the sun in your eyes. So there’s like so many different elements that kind of hit you. One day we’re shooting, and we’re playing in the rain, obviously there’s some cover over us, but it’s humid, things are wet and slippery, so it’s all just the elements. And then of course the teams that we were playing. I don’t think we realized how hard playing them would be, so just the overall experience was extremely difficult.

SBN: I mean you guys only lost once, and that came after you’d already set your place in the knockout rounds, so what do you think was the the biggest key to you being so successful?

SD: I feel like it was just staying the course. We knew every team was gonna give us their best game and play as hard as they could. And for us we just focused on ourselves, like it didn’t really matter who we were playing, it was just play our game, you know, play strong, don’t get caught up with the refs, and even the games that we won, they were close. It was because we just stayed the course, we focused on what our ultimate goal was. And then we were just able to kind of pull out those games because yes, we lost one, and everyone kept saying that, but a few of them were real close, because these teams were just so incredible and it was for a gold medal, you know it’s not supposed to be easy. So, it was really tough.

SBN: Yeah, I feel like every time I checked a score, it was like 21-17 or 21-18.

SD: It was close, yeah. Real close.

SBN: Yeah, it’s so nervy because with the clock too, just everything feels so compressed and so heightened and I mean I imagine just like the experience of competing in pressure situations helps prepare you for WNBA and other leagues that you play in, but like at the same time it just felt so different, like, oh my god, things are happening so quickly.

SD: Hundred percent. Our first — the Austria qualifying tournament — that was the first time I had ever actually played 3x3 in that type of tournament. And when I tell you my anxiety and nervousness the night before a game, or like 20 minutes before a game. It’s just extremely heightened because of what you just said, everything’s so compressed and short, that you could lose the game in the first minute, compared to a 40 minute game that’s up and down. So it’s a quick game and it’s high anxiety, but very fun.

2020 Tokyo Olympics: 3x3 USA v France
Dolson had 5 points and 4 rebounds in an 18-16 semifinal win over France, which had four of the top-5 3x3 players in the world.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

SBN: How did you make that decision that you wanted to be a part of 3x3 because I’m sure you had thoughts about playing in the 5-on-5 national team pool at times in your career?

SD: Yeah well, 5-on-5 obviously, there’s so many amazing players. I’ve been in the pool and just been with USA basketball for a long time. And so I think they’ve seen how much hard work, and how much time I’ve put in with USA basketball, so it was really them giving me that opportunity. There are so many players in 5-on-5, but we have this opportunity with 3x3, would you like to try it, and I was like yeah, of course. So I tried it, I didn’t know if I would like it or if I would be good at it. But once I played, it kind of fit pretty seamlessly with the way that I play basketball. Because at UConn we were really taught like 3-on-3 and then you have 2-on-2 games, so I kind of just fit in pretty naturally and I really enjoyed playing it.

SBN: I guess we should talk about the Sky. How do you feel like you’ve become a better player like through this experience over the last year, and how does that translate to your performance with Chicago?

SD: I just think for me it’s my confidence. You know a lot of times that goes up and down with the way that I play. But I think it’s just like that confidence and knowing what I bring to the table, and what my role is on a team. And for me with the Chicago Sky it’s like, you know I may not always score, but I’m a big facilitator, I screen a lot for our players to score. So it’s really just growing into that role of what type of player they need me to be. But yeah, it’s just like that maturity of knowing what you bring to the table.

SBN: You guys have a really diverse and talented from court in Chicago, like I’m thinking about Astou (Ndour) who was just killing it in the Olympics with Spain, and obviously Candace (Parker) and Ruthy (Hebard)’s there now and Azura (Stevens). There’s just so many different pieces, what is your role fitting into all of that?

SD: Just being kind of that big body that can do anything that they need me to. If it’s screen, cool, if they need me to score, I’ll score. Facilitate, great, defense, great. Just whatever they need me to do, you know, I think that’s the best part about our team is that we’re so versatile. In different games and different teams, our matchups are going to be different because we’re all really good at different things. So it’s kind of like, you know keeping other teams on their toes with what kind of Chicago team they’ll get.

SBN: Over the past couple years, I feel like the reputation of Chicago has been just this standout offensive team, the sets you guys run are so gorgeous, and then this year I think your record is about the same, but, you know, the defense has really picked up but the offense has come down a little bit. I’m curious, why do you think that has happened?

SD: I don’t know. I do feel as though we have put a higher emphasis on defense. Unfortunately, it hasn’t led to as much offense as I think we were hoping it would. Plus I think teams are just scouting us well, I mean they know that we love to be in transition, that is our bread and butter, and that has been for the past few years. So I do think that teams are doing a pretty good job of getting back on us when we do get a stop, so it’s just about finding what works for us, you know what lineups work, what matchups work, and kind of sticking with those and just kind of riding it out from there.

SBN: Is there anything in particular that you want to improve on for the last 10-11 games of the season, or for the team as a whole?

SD: I think for me, just being more aggressive. I think since I’ve been back from the Olympics I’ve become a little bit more aggressive. I don’t always — because we have a lot of scorers, or people that are capable of scoring, I usually get pretty passive with my shots. But I think it’s kinda like why not, you know? I know I can shoot the ball so I think I’m just gonna be more aggressive and more versatile in what offensively.

SBN: I have a couple of random questions before we get out of here, but you went to Connecticut with Breanna Stewart, right? I feel like we’re living in the golden age of Stewie right now and I’m curious, did you see that when you were with her in college? Did you see the start of something this special with her?

SD: 100% I mean, she was great back then at UConn, and then she just kept getting better after I graduated. I don’t think I knew it was gonna be this much, you know, gonna be this good, but I knew she was gonna be good. Really good. But I mean, she’s just incredible, and she’s an incredible person, I mean that’s what makes it even better is like getting all the accolades and awards that she’s getting and whatnot, she deserves it, you know, and she’s such a great person and humble that I’m just really happy for her.

SBN: What’s the experience like trying to guard her?

SD: I don’t know, I don’t ever guard her. If I guard her, it’s usually because we switched for some strange reason, and if it happens, I just face guard her. I just look at her, I just won’t even help anyone, because I don’t want you to get the ball because if you get the ball, you’re probably gonna score on me. That’s my way of guarding her.

SBN: And then I also wanted to ask, you know we’re at the point, 25 years of the WNBA, where people who were coming into the league now grew up with the WNBA so they had a relationship with the league ideally when they were growing up. What was your relationship like with the WNBA when you were younger? Did you like have a favorite team, were you dreaming about becoming a pro?

SD: I actually did not. So, for me, I just didn’t know I would be good at basketball like this, or even have this chance. I wasn’t expecting to go to college for basketball, I played volleyball in middle school too, so it was kind of like I always loved volleyball too, so I didn’t think I would do anything with basketball. And then scholarships started happening and I was like, oh, okay, maybe I could be pretty good. And then UConn happened, and then the league. So growing up I just never thought that was a possibility for me until I really got to college, then I was like okay, I think I can make the league and I think I can be a part of it, so. Yeah, unfortunately it was not but it’s really great to know that other girls now are growing up and seeing the league and just our game the other day against Seattle was one of the top-viewed games, so seeing things like that, it just shows how much more viewership we’re getting, which is awesome.

SBN: Where does the nickname Big Mama Stef come from?

SD: Literally nowhere. It’s just like, my friend in college, you know, he just called me Big Mama Stef one day, and it just stuck, I mean I am motherly, like I just want people to be taken care of, like I would do anything for anyone. I don’t know if I want to be a mother, so it’s kinda weird but, yeah, it’s not really much to it.

SBN: It’s funny I was talking to my brother. Yesterday I told him that I’d have a chance to talk to you and he’s like oh, Big Mama Stef, and I was like yeah, Stefanie Dolson.

SD: That’s all they called me in Tokyo and the qualifying tournament, it was like, “Big Mama!”

SBN: I guess 3x3 has a little bit more flair to it, so nicknames kind of work, right?

SD: Yeah, much more flair.