When you think of women’s basketball in Australia, you think Lauren Jackson. Peter McAlpine takes a look at Australia’s most prolific female basketballer and her journey to the top.

Jackson in action for the Opals. Photo: AIS

Lauren is an Australian icon. When she was announced as the flag bearer for Australia at the London 2012 Olympic Games it was universally applauded. She was recently named as one of Australia’s most prominent female Olympians. But what drives her?

Lauren’s parents were a big influence on her game growing up in Albury – her father Gary was a “Boomer” and played for Australia in 1975 and her mother played for the Australian women’s basketball team, the Opals, from 1978 to 1983. Obviously both were very tall.

Lauren remembers, “My mother and I were very close. She supported me as did my father growing up and gave me the freedom to explore and understand myself, I guess that’s when I figured out how much I love the sport and what it did for my confidence and social skills. Obviously I was blessed with my height and athleticism but I was very determined to succeed and I had the support from my family that made it easy for a country girl to be able to succeed in sport. The link between then and now is that I still have that support from my family in good and bad times which helps me more than anything to be able to compete at my best, emotionally and physically.”

Lauren Elizabeth Jackson was born on the 11th of May, 1981. She made the Australian under-20 team when she was only 14 years old. She attended Murray High School and finished her schooling in Canberra at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). Lauren is a naturally shy person who ironically went on to become arguably the most famous female basketballer on the planet. However, she just takes it in her stride.

Lauren says, “I have just been around it so long. I am still quite shy but I deal with that by doing my job and going home. I communicate with fans via Twitter as much as I can and I speak to groups of people, but it is professional, it’s my job and I have had to learn to deal with being okay around groups of people.

“I find that the more I have opened up about who I really am and my schooling and passions, the more comfortable I have become especially via social media. I mean, people are not always going to like you, or agree with you, but it is fun to have a voice away from the basketball context.”

Lauren Jackson. Photo: MR FOOJI / Foter / CC BY-NC

Lauren Jackson has played basketball for Australia since she was 14. Photo: MR FOOJI / Foter / CC BY-NC

In 2001, Lauren began a long association with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) – it was in its fifth year. Her career average with the WNBA was 2056 field goals playing for the Seattle Storm. Jackson went on to be named 2001 Rookie of the Year, a title that allowed the Australian to be embraced by the United States.

“It eventually became home. When I first went over there, I struggled with the culture, the professionalism of the league, the strength and talent of the players and just how draining the travelling and playing was. Obviously it made me the player I became but it came with its struggles and sacrifices. I missed home dearly when I first left but it became my second home and my favourite place in the world other than Australia so I do love it.”

Despite all of this Lauren still feels at home in the New South Wales countryside, with the Albury Sports Stadium recently renamed in her honour to the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre.

Does she still consider herself a country girl at heart?

“Yes without a doubt. It’s more the fact that I am getting older and if I want to have a drink I’d rather do it in privacy in the company of some close friends, listen to good music and just not have to worry about anything you know. I used to love spending time out in pubs and clubs and to be honest I still enjoy the odd pub stop at the Kinross Woolshed. I am more of a pub kinda country girl!”

In London 2012 she carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, a decision that was universally applauded and proved a popular choice. What does she remember from that night?

“I can remember complete euphoria and nothing much else. I have found that reliving a lot of the most special moments in my life are usually best done by watching it again on TV. I forget the most emotional moments in my life, which is a problem, but maybe in some weird way a self-preservation thing. I haven’t re-watched it yet.”

The favourite moment of her whole career came last year when she was named flag bearer for the London Olympics, Lauren says: “it was such an amazing honour to lead my country at the Opening ceremony. I never in my wildest dreams though I would ever be asked but I was and that is something I will feel great pride about until the day I die.”

Jackson obviously has great pride in Australia, a pride she has always had though is more passionate about as she matures.

A young Lauren at the AIS. Photo: AIS

“Yeah I do, it is an honour and I think sometimes you take things like that for granted when you are young but as I have gotten older the pride and the sense of responsibility I feel toward the Opals is something I cannot emulate.”

In 2007 she went and played for WBC Spartak Moscow in Russia, winning three Superleague titles there whilst playing for a number of seasons. Going from one side of the globe to the other meant that Lauren had to learn to adjust to a different lifestyle.

“I had a great team and great friends in the team so that kind of took away from the fact that I was a million miles from home in Eastern Europe in the middle of Europe. My owner there Shabtai was a great friend and mentor to me and when he passed away it was very difficult to play in Europe again, just after all the experiences and the way of life we had over there. He made it very easy to play and live in Europe for so long without family.”

Women’s sport has come to prominence in Australia in recent years, with sports such as women’s basketball, women’s cricket and the W-League gaining support, flaunting stars such as Ellyse Perry, Stephanie Gilmore and, of course, Lauren. Does she think women’s sport should be given even more coverage in the light of these advances?

“Look I think there is a long way to go. We are definitely getting more recognition but in terms of “closing the gap” between women and men, there is still a lot of work to do. Last year, the Sydney (Daily) Telegraph named a horse “Female athlete of the year”. I found this completely sexist, diminishing the importance of women in sport and the roles they play in live of children. What does this say to young girls with hopes and dreams of becoming the best female athlete she can be? The performances of Sally Pearson and Anna Meares at the 2012 Olympics were worthy of best athlete of the year male or female but still, our country still chooses to diminish the role of female athletes in Australian society. Things like this make me want to fight harder to close the gap and be seen as equals in every walk of Australian society, as it an embarrassment to endorse such ridiculous, misogynist reporting.”

But learning to shoot hoops and keep with other athletes at such an elite level meant a tough regime. “In season in Australia, typically 4 team sessions per week, 3 weights/conditioning sessions p/w and 3-4 individual on court training sessions per week.” All this training, she says, leads her to one achievement that has still slipped through her fingers.

So what still drives her at this elite level?

“Definitely but most of all the illusive Olympic Gold medal,” but there is so much more to Lauren Jackson than just basketball.

“I am a bit nerdy, I love studying, I love learning and I would rather be reading a good book than socialising!”

One particular interest  in her life has been music. Her parents introduced her to the Bee Gees and in 2012 Lauren saw Barry in concert – the music has had a big impact in her life.

“Yeah we did go to see Barry Gibb live. He was just amazing, a pure inspiration. What an icon. Music for me like so many other people is the soundtrack to my life; different bands represent different periods of my life, different emotional spaces and physical spaces. Music has defined moments in my life and when I listen to it I find myself having the same emotional responses I had when I first heard the music. When I train I just put it on shuffle and go. I have music from the 50s right through till now and get so much pleasure listening to it all. It is without a doubt the most important form of entertainment for me.”

Her advice to anyone, especially aspiring female athletes is “TO HAVE FUN! Just enjoy participating and then if you love it enough and you have aspirations and dreams… FOLLOW THEM. There are no limitations on what one person can achieve personally and professionally.”