South Carolina strong: Dawn Staley and her gameday workout crew

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South Carolina director of women’s basketball performance Molly Binetti has worked out on gamedays since she started with the program in 2018. Sometimes, in past seasons, she hit the gym alone or with a team manager, a graduate assistant, athletic trainer Craig Oates or a small group of staffers. But before the Gamecocks’ November contest against Maryland, Binetti received an inquiry from another member of the program who was curious about her morning workouts: Head coach Dawn Staley said she was interested in joining Binetti for a pregame lift.

On the eve of the Gamecocks’ game on Nov. 16, Binetti asked Staley if she’d be interested in joining her 10 a.m. workout. The next day, Staley showed up in South Carolina’s weight room, ready to go, but not knowing exactly what the training would entail.

A new tradition began that morning before the Gamecocks’ 109-40 win over Clemson. On every gameday since, around a dozen members of South Carolina’s coaching and support staffs gather for strength training and cardio. Assistant coach Lisa Boyer makes clear it’s not a superstition. Instead, she prefers to call it a routine. “That’s what we do,” she said. “This is who we are now.” Semantics aside, the No. 1 seeded Gamecocks enter Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 5 seed Oklahoma undefeated.

Everyone on staff is welcome, and peer-pressure isn’t applied. “Nobody is told to be there. If you show up, you’re in the group,” Boyer said. They pose for a photo and usually share the flexing on social media to document it. “At first, I didn’t realize how cool it was to have this thing going,” Binetti said.

The specifics of the workout vary depending on a game’s location. When South Carolina plays on the road, Binetti checks out hotel fitness centers as soon as the team gets settled, and she begins devising a plan based on space and equipment. The sessions, which last around 45 minutes, usually consist of the following: a block of four or five strength exercises, in which participants perform four or five sets each. Then another block of three to five exercises, with three or four sets of each.

No matter how a workout opens, there are two staples to conclude it. Participants have to run-the-rack; that means complete sets of five bicep curls, beginning at five pounds, and increasing in weight increments of five pounds up to 50 pounds (or as heavy as someone can go), before going back down. The other end-of-workout routine is a Tabata cardio workout, which requires participants alternate between 20 seconds of sprinting and a 10-second rest eight times. “You have a lot of people cheering you on in those moments,” Boyer said.

The morning workouts are emblematic of the program’s broader ethos. Binetti said it demonstrates their trust and support in each other; how they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. “It’s just another way that the culture of our program is reflected,” she said. “I think you see that in how we carry ourselves and the success that we’ve had and how coach Staley runs our program. This is kind of an extension of that.”

Bakari Sellers, who formerly served in the state legislature and is an avid Gamecocks’ fan, has joined the workout. Former South Carolina and WNBA star Aliyah Boston took part in the training on Jan. 25. Laeticia Amihere, a forward with the Fever who also played for the Gamecocks, showed up a few times this winter when her offseason schedule allowed, too.

Amihere admits to looking over at Staley and Boyer running-the-rack and thinking to herself, “Nah, I definitely have to go up.” She added: “I could never be humbled by Coach Staley and Coach Boyer, so they definitely keep me very competitive.”

Binetti has been impressed with Staley’s performance. “I give her a ton of credit because I swear that woman never sleeps, and she comes in and she works hard,” she said. “She’s had some knee surgeries behind her so I know some things just don’t feel good, but you don’t hear her complain. She works.”

Staley, 53, was a six-time WNBA All-Star and won three Olympic gold medals as a player — and her athleticism still shows. “Make no mistake, Dawn is an elite athlete and will always be,” Boyer said. “There isn’t anything that she’s not going to be able to tackle.”

Though the workouts are a staff bonding experience, coaches say they send a message to the other key factions of the program. “(It’s) a model for our players too,” Binetti said. “Walking the walk, instead of just talking about it.”

Players have noticed the routine, even if they can’t take part. Senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said there’s a clear tell when workouts occur. “They come to breakfast all sweaty and stuff, red-faced,” she said.

Still, much like South Carolina’s players priding themselves on discipline, the Gamecocks’ staff does too. “No matter how early it is, everybody is still there,” Binetti said. “No matter if you’re tired, don’t want to be there, whatever it is. It’s just become part of what we do.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Molly Binetti) 

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