The World Championship campaign that would culminate in a history-making gold medal was more than three years in the making.
Coach Ray Tomlinson and his assistant Phil Brown would prepare their young and wildly talented group for success with tours and games right around the world.
By the time the group landed in Korea for the 1993 World Championships, at the Seoul venue where the Olympics were held five years earlier, they’d played 76 games before the ball was even tipped.
“We lost 13 games, won 63 and were never beaten by a junior national team. 76 games in preparation,” Tomlinson proudly recalls.
“We went to Russia, I deliberately wanted to go to Russia and make it tough for the kids to find out how tough they really were.”
That trip highlighted to the whole Australian touring party just how tough travel, conditions and logistics can be away from home.
The foundations were laid for the players who after achieving World Championship success would go on to enjoy successful careers in the WNBL, state leagues, Europe and the WNBA and the sporting pinnacle, the Olympic Games.
“I remember it was 27c below 0 when we arrived in Russia, it was absolutely freezing,” Tomlinson says.
“We travelled from Moscow to Ukraine but we struggled to get there because there’d been an avalanche of snow through the mountains.
“We were on a train for six hours then we had to turn around and go back to Moscow and re-route our trip to Ukraine via another couple of countries.
“We arrived 14 hours later, we got out and played the Ukraine national team. They were a pretty formidable group, Broges (Michelle Brogan) scored the winning basket on the bell and we won by one or two points.
“We thought we were starting to be pretty special when we started to do things like that and for me it was an eye opener about our future and how we went about things, making it tough.”
While the coaches instilled a toughness in the young group they also empowered the players and filled them with confidence as towering centre Maryanne Briggs explains.
“We were so close as a team and every game the coaches talked to us but then left us to warm up and we knew our roles. We just had to look at each other to know we were all in the zone, it’s hard to explain but that’s what teams of champions do.
“The fact that we never dropped a game to a junior team the whole three and a half years lead up to it was also an amazing achievement.”
Michelle Cleary, who’d make more history three years later in Atlanta when the Opals won Australia’s first ever Olympic medal, agrees.
“The coaches created an amazing team culture and instilled confidence and belief in every player who contributed to our success,” she said.
“To be part of our team and history-making win was incredible and took a lot of sacrifice and support from our families which I truly appreciated.
“We celebrated in style and 30 years on looking back over our three-year preparation and win at the World Cup I feel incredibly honoured to be part of our amazing team.”
And while much of the team were still teenagers, the significance wasn’t lost on the gold-medal winning group.
“The sense of pride felt like it was magnified 10-fold every time we reminded ourselves that we were now the best in the world for our age and sport. And we did something that no one else in Australia has ever done before,” Gina Stevens says.
“It was a pretty amazing feat as an 18-year-old kid. It made you hungry for more success.
“It was also kind of like the end of an era. We had put so much into this over the last three years to reach this point, and now our junior careers were over. It was time to move up into the senior ranks and try to repeat this success there.”
Samantha Tomlinson, who shared the history-making achievement with her father, remembers the rockstar reception on return to Australia.
“Winning the first gold medal for Australian women’s basketball was a significant achievement, and the media attention we received upon our return was overwhelming,” she says.
“I remember being greeted by fans at Melbourne Airport, having a banquet and being interviewed by several news channels.
“It was an exciting time and I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment.
Gold Medal Memories
Michelle Cleary: “It was simply amazing. One of the highlights of my basketball career and to be part of our brilliant team of players, coaches and support staff was something very special. Our journey to winning the gold medal was filled with incredible experiences, international tours, plenty of fun and laughter and life-long friendships.”
Gina Stevens: “I remember some of our support staff going to the local markets after we won and getting baseball caps embroidered with 'World Champions 1993 Basketball' on the front and our nicknames and playing numbers on the back. I remember Timmsy (Michele Timms) getting some t-shirts made up with 'Australia's First Gold' on the front, and all our names on the back, and thinking how amazing that a legend of Australian basketball went out of her way to create these shirts for us.”
Maryanne Briggs: “Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend just how fantastic the achievement of winning a gold medal and becoming world champions was and doing it with this group of players. Every time I hear the national anthem, I get a tear in my eye as I always remember standing on the podium with my 12 teammates and becoming a world champion.”
Samantha Tomlinson: “The opportunity to share this experience with my father, who was head coach, was particularly special. Looking back, I’m grateful for the memories and friendships that were formed during this time. Although we may not talk as much now, we still remain connected through a group chat and I know that our bond as teammates will always be there.”
Jo Hill: “I remember arriving back to all the media and then being at the AIS when Australia was announced as the host country for the 2000 Olympics and out of that team five of us (Hill, Brogan, Porter, Harrower, Whittle) played in Sydney. Worlds was pretty special as my mum came over and watched, but also being part of this team was extraordinary, amazing and most of us were together for the three years leading up.”
1993 Junior Women World Champions
Team: Kristi Harrower, Michelle Brogan, Jenny Whittle, Carla Boyd, Jo Hill, Sally Phillips (Crowe), Samantha Tomlinson, Gina Stevens, Michelle Cleary (Chandler), Maryanne Briggs (Di Francesco), Nerida Gray (Jeffrey) Laura Pokorny (Howlett).
Coach: Ray Tomlinson
Assistant Coach: Phil Brown
Team manager: Norma Connolly
Physio: Jill Cook
Gold Medal Game: Australia 72 d Russia 54
MVP: Michelle Brogan