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How Tess Madgen fell back in love with basketball and became Opals captain for the FIBA Women's World Cup in Sydney

Tess Madgen is speaking eloquently and passionately about being named Opals captain, when a teardrop escapes almost imperceptibly from the corner of her eye.

She pushes on, as she explains the pride she feels, the type of leader she will be, and how those close to her have helped her along the way, when again, the tears start to well up.

It's only been a few minutes since coach Sandy Brondello made the announcement, and it's clear the enormity of the role is sinking in as we speak.

From being a fringe player re-building her career after an ACL injury a few years ago, Madgen is now preparing to lead one of Australia's most successful international teams in the biggest moment in their recent history – a World Cup at home.

"I'll definitely be trying to empower everyone to lead in their way and really be a leader from the bottom trying to build everyone else up," Madgen told ABC Sport.

"I'm very tough, I play every single play as if it's the last play. So I think that will be important.

"And off the court, just making sure everyone's okay, I'm very compassionate. Trying to build those meaningful connections so on the court, the trust is there."

Mental wellbeing and gratitude help in career second coming

Madgen comes across as a born leader – but she's had to fight to earn that title with the Opals.

She made her first national squad in 2011 – but after several cruel cuts, played her first major international tournament at the 2018 World Championships, and then her debut Olympics in Tokyo last year.

When Jenna O'Hea decided to retire earlier this year, Madgen, Steph Talbot, and Sami Whitcomb formed the leadership group.

And coach Brondello chose the solo skipper just a couple of weeks ahead of the World Cup.

"In 2018 she just pushed her way into the team just through her work ethic and being willing to do whatever it takes or whatever is required from the coach and just her resiliency over the years," Brondello said.

"She's well respected by her teammates as well and she's one of the smartest players we have."

"I think going through the adversity of not making a team, the injuries, you do become more compassionate and you can relate to your teammates on a lot of different levels," Madgen said.

"And going from someone who barely played to having a bigger role on the team also helps me be able to put myself in all my teammates' shoes and and be as supportive as I can of them."

Madgen's defining moment came when she did an ACL injury while playing in Poland in 2018.

The one-year rehabilitation journey was a blessing.

"I wasn't really enjoying playing basketball at the time when I did my ACL," she said.

"Staying on top of my psychological and mental well-being has been a huge learning process from that, also ensuring my body is 100 per cent fit at all times so I can play at my best.

"I found a new love for basketball, and I definitely became a better teammate."

Madgen says she's now a more well-rounded person, she's studying to be a PE teacher, and is the head coach and manager of the Melbourne Boomers Academy.

"I just find things every day that fill my cup. I think that's really important away from basketball, so you're not solely identifying as a basketballer," she said.

"I also practice gratitude and meditate every day, which keeps me in a really good, positive frame of mind."

Once an Opal, always an Opal

There's a weight that comes with being an Opal.

Every player talks about the sisterhood and the legacy.

The legacy of the greats that have gone before, like their current coach Brondello, those that have gone and come back, like Lauren Jackson, and those that are in the making.

Madgen feels the responsibility of carrying that forward.

"Growing up as watching the Sydney Olympics is what really inspired me to want to be an Opal," she said.

"We are a sisterhood, once an Opal, always an Opal. And I think that's something that this group can really leave a mark on is our care for each other and hopefully that will be taken forward in all Opals groups in the future."

Madgen says the players are as fit as they've ever been and at the World Cup want to showcase their trademarks of being "super fierce, super feared, tough, physically relentless".

Australia's only ever won the World Cup once – in 2006, and the last time the tournament was played here was in 1994.

After an early exit from last year's Tokyo Olympics, there are high expectations for the team to rebound at home.

"I think we would be lying if we didn't feel that extra pressure, but we really want to use it to our advantage," Madgen said.

"We want to make it feel hostile, we want the crowd to be 100 per cent behind us, and it's super exciting.

"A lot of us haven't been able to play for Australia in front of our family and friends so that added support, it's going to be crucial in getting the result that we want."

The Women's Basketball World Cup will be played in Sydney from Thursday September 22 – Saturday October 1.

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