MELBOURNE (FIBA World Championship for Women) - If you thought Jan Stirling could relax after finally leading Australia to a gold medal at last year's FIBA World Championship for Women, you'd be wrong.
After finishing in the medals at every World Championship and Olympic Games since 1996, Stirling breathed a sigh of relief as the Opals finally captured gold in Brazil last September.
But almost as soon as the Opals had clinched Australia's first international basketball title, attention turned to whether they would be able to repeat that feat at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Coach Stirling laughed at the suggestion that the Opals' breakthrough success has made her job more difficult, but only because she knows what expectations lie ahead.
"It's funny because, you watch when we get to Beijing, people will think 'gee, the Opals will probably win a gold because they won it at the Worlds', but they've got no idea what you're up against," she said.
"We had a bit of luck in Brazil because we didn’t have any major injuries or sickness, things were pretty good for us, so I hope like hell we have all those bits and pieces come together again.
"It is a hard act to follow but certainly a big challenge and I think the girls are pretty hungry for it, which is terrific."
Eight months on and Stirling has had time to reflect on the Opals' victory, pinpointing two factors she believes were fundamental to the team's success.
"I've been in the Australian program as a coach since about 1993, and this was the worst prepared team in relation to time together and access to competition," she said.
"But, where we made up for that was knowing, as a group, that every practice had to be the best we could possibly make it. Every time we came away from practice we thought, 'yep, we got through that really well', and that's a credit to the girls. They were so focused on making sure that our time together was the best quality we could produce, and I thought they did that with great efficiency.
"The other amazing thing at the Worlds was that not only did we have the highest points scorer of the tournament in Lauren Jackson, the MVP of the tournament was a different player but still from the Opals, Penny Taylor. Penny is a world-class act in her own right, without question, and to have those two number-one rankings from our team was just amazing as quite often your number-one points scorer is your MVP.
"We certainly got the best out of our personnel, and I think what the Opals did for women's sport in this country, let alone for basketball, was fantastic."
The Opals' achievement was noted at the Confederation of Australian Sport awards in February when Stirling was named Coach of the Year for 2006, while the Opals were named International Team of the Year ahead of the Australian men's soccer team, which reached the knock-out stage of the World Cup for the first time and almost beat eventual winners Italy.
"It was a very proud moment for me, but more so for the team," said Stirling. "It's great for our sport and great for Basketball Australia. I was really thrilled that the girls pipped the Socceroos, who were probably the sentimental favourites. It was wonderful recognition for them.
"Most of the girls were overseas with their clubs so it was a real shame they couldn't be there, but Jenny Whittle did a fantastic job in mentioning all the girls offshore in her acceptance speech. I emailed them and passed on some comments from dignatries and so forth, just so they could get a little bit excited by it all.
(Olympic gold-medalist swimmer) Dawn Fraser has always been a wonderful fan of the Opals and I spoke to her on the night. (Rugby World Cup-winning captain) John Eales also sent me a wonderful letter and I've shared their comments with the girls."
While the Opals have earned plenty of recognition amongst the sporting fraternity, perhaps only Olympic gold will see them become household names.
And should that happen, Stirling believes the Opals will act as perfect role models given the way they carried themselves throughout their World Championship-winning campaign.
"Within the sporting world of this country, I think what we've achieved is fairly well known, but probably in the general, broader community, it's still 'oh, who are the Opals?' she said.
"The girls have certainly made people sit up and take notice, but also it's the way we go about it as well. I had nothing but compliments from the hotel manager, the tournament manager and the media manager, who said that the Opals were professional, warm, friendly and very respectful. That said a lot to me about the way the girls go about their business and it was very pleasing to have that sort of unsolicited remarks made about the Opals team.
"So not only did they win and become world champions, they did it in a manner that represented our country really, really well - both on and off the court."
The plaudits keep coming but Stirling is not getting complacent.
Instead, she is focusing on making sure the Opals remain the world's best in Beijing.
"Our system's pretty good here. But that's not to say we can't improve it - and we do need to improve it - we can't just sit back and say, 'we're number one now so we're OK'," she said.
"There's a few areas I think we're down on. When you look at the statistics, we were the highest percentage shooting team there (in
Brazil) but we don't want to rely on that all the time so I think our offensive rebounding and three-point shooting need to improve. Our mixing up of defence needs to be more flexible than it was in the past, and that's because other nations have scouted us and are catching up.
"We certainly have to be better than what we were at the Worlds if we want to be a legitimate medal contender for Beijing, there's no doubt about it. Everyone will improve."
With so many Australians based in Europe, Stirling is hoping to utilise the Australian Institute of Sport's base in Varese, Italy, in the build-up to Beijing.
"If we still have this many athletes in the European leagues early next year, it may be beneficial to take some athletes from Australia and over there into Varese and have a mini-camp," she added. "We're looking at options, in addition to making sure that all the athletes in Europe are aware of the medical back-up and other things they can access through Varese if need be."
The Opals already have a camp confirmed in Italy in June before Stirling visits China, the United States and Europe, scouting the European finals in October. The hard work starts here.
Ben Collins, Sydney