By Tom Degun

Tom Degun_in_shirt_and_tieVery few of the team leaders at the London 2012 Olympics will be able to rival the trophy cabinet of Teresa Edwards, the high-profile Chef de Mission of Team USA.

A graduate of the University of Georgia, the 47-year-old is a five-time Olympian and no less than the most decorated Olympic basketball player on the planet.

She has four Olympic gold medals and one bronze having tasted victory at Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.

Her one disappointment - if you can call an Olympic bronze medal that - came at Barcelona in 1992, when the US were beaten by the Unified Team, representing the Commonwealth of Independent States of the recently-defunct Soviet Union.

Edwards is, uniquely, the youngest gold medalist in women's basketball - age 20 in 1984 - and also the oldest - age 36 in 2000

Edwards also had the honour, on her 32nd birthday, of standing in front of the world and taking the Athletes' Oath during the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Amongst other achievements, she is also a four-time USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year as well as a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Hall of Fame.

In 2000, Sports Illustrated magazine placed her as 22nd of the "100 Greatest Female Athletes of the 20th Century".

Teresa Edwards_Sydney_2000
But her route to becoming the Team USA Chef de Mission, where she will provide overall leadership for America's Olympic athletes, was a controversial one.

It was actually Peter Vidmar, a double Olympic gymnastics champion, who was originally named for the role in April 2011 before he resigned just a week later following a series of damaging allegations over his opposition to same-sex marriage due to his religious beliefs as a Mormon.

Left with a crisis, be it a relatively small one, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) turned to a natural-born winner in Edwards, identifying her as the person to steady the ship and lead Team USA to glory at London 2012.

"As a five-time Olympian, Teresa understands the needs of our athletes at the highest level of competition," explained USOC chairman Larry Probst.

"She's an American hero, and I'm grateful she has agreed to serve in this important role."

Edwards, who remains as colourful a character as she was in her playing days, admits that while she was surprised to get the call, it did not take her long to accept the role.

Teresa Edwards_entering_Basketball_Hall_of_Fame
"It is an amazing honour," she told me as we spoke in Dallas.

"But my first question when I was asked to take up the role was: 'What is a Chef de Mission?'

"I didn't really know what it meant because I had never actually met a Chef at any of the five Olympics I'd been in.

"But once I understood, it didn't take longer than two minutes for me to say that I would love to do it."

The term is actually French "Chef de Mission Diplomatique" and is the generic term used to refer to the head of a diplomatic representation but has been adopted by the Olympic Movement to indicate the leader of a country's team at the Games. 

"Maybe I wasn't the clear choice. I mean, looking at the obvious, I'm a woman and I'm black and you cannot forget that I'm therefore still a minority in the US," said Edwars. "But in a way, that makes it all the more special and being the Chef encompasses what I represent as a five-time Olympian.

"So come back to the Olympics in this capacity, I'm kind of blown away by it. I try to maintain a controlled appearance on the outside but I'm still blown away by it on the inside.

"I've been lucky enough to be associated with the Olympic Movement for more than 30 years but I think this role is the highest honour around for a former Olympian. I mean, I've won Olympic golds, I've been inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame but now I'm the Chef. There is nothing higher for me. So to be able to give back in this fashion is incredibly humbling and I'm excited to share whatever wisdom I have with the amazing men and women that will make up Team USA at the London Games."

Given that she has never met a Chef de Mission despite competing at five Olympic Games, I ask Edwards if she plans to be a far more visible presence at London 2012 or simply one who will look to blend into the background.

"I think I'll be whatever the situation calls for me to be," she said.

"I feel like I'm in a team with Larry Probst (pictured below left), Scott Blackmun [the USOC chief executive] (picutred below centre) and Alan Ashley [the USOC chief of sport performance]. It is a great team to be a part of and whatever that team call for me to do as Chef, I'm willing to get it done as best as I can.

Teresa Edwards_with_Larry_Probst_and_Scott_Blackmun
"I do want to be visible though and to be there for the athletes that need me.

"I remember that when I first went to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, it was a crazy experience. I managed to deal with it well and we were fortunate enough to take the gold but I know that there were athletes who really struggled with things because it is such a strange environment.

"It will be the same in London and there will be athletes that need more support than other. You cannot forget that a lot of the athletes are very young and that this is a completely new experience for them. I do not think you are doing your job properly as the Chef if you are not looking out for them.

"But on a personal level, I really do want to spread out and see all of the sports, or at least as many as possible. People always ask me about basketball and whether I will at every match but I know all about basketball. I just want to get round to as many of the sports as possible and touch with as many athletes as I possibly can given this tremendous opportunity."

Edwards though, admits that she may not be the most orthodox of Chef de Mission's when it comes to supporting America's Olympians.

"I went to the Pan American Games in Guadalajara last year to practice being the Chef and going round to all the different sports," she explained.

"I remember going to watch equestrian and within seconds, I started yelling. I was getting funny looks because it isn't a sport where that happens! But you do get caught up and I'm passionate about us doing well. I'll probably try not to do that at London 2012 when I'm at the equestrian but I can't promise anything!"

As for London, she admits she has been delighted with the preparations for the Olympic Games.

"It obviously helps us that there is no language or cultural barrier in Britain but the key thing that is going to make it a lot easier for us is that the Organising Committee have done such a brilliant with getting everything ready," said Edwards (pictured below centre with gold medal from Sydney 2000). 

"Despite all my years travelling as a competitor, I had never been to London before I got this role. I've been there twice now since being appointed and I think it is a beautiful setting. There are obviously concerns over things like security but you have those at every Games and I think the correct plans are in place for security. London is just an amazing city and I'm very excited."

Teresa Edwards_with_Olympic_gold_medal_Sydney_2000
Now for the big question: can the USA finish on top of the medal table at the London 2012 Olympic Games? Heading into Beijing 2008, America had finished on top for well over a decade but China hit back hard on home soil as they claimed 51 gold medals compared to 36 from the USA, who were a distant second.

China remain the favourites for London 2012 but Edwards warned not to bet against the USA just yet.

"I'm very competitive," she said.

"I'm competitive playing ping pong and I don't even know how to hold the paddle! That is just my nature so if you ask me if we are going to London 2012 to win and come out on top, I would say that yes we are.

"I think we are as good as we are healthy. If we go there fit and we perform at our best, I think we will be real contenders.

"But let's be honest, not every single US athlete is going to go to London 2012 and win a gold medal. It doesn't really work like that. We are just going to give it our best shot and see what we come out with.

"Like the whole of the US, I would love us to top the medal table but at the same time, I won't really be approaching London 2012 entirely in that manner as a Chef.

"When I was an athlete, I went simply to win but I need to be there more in a support manner as the Chef.

"That is the best way to approach it but while we are not making any medal targets or predictions, I would be lying if I said winning medals wasn't very high on our list of priorities at London 2012."

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames