By Steve Keating
LONDON (Reuters) - It is doubtful there is an athlete anywhere that has enjoyed a less stressful Olympic career than Diana Taurasi, the lynchpin of the all-conquering United States women's basketball team who pocketed her third gold medal on Saturday.
On a 20-year, 41-game unbeaten run, the U.S. women's domination of the Olympic hardwood began long before Taurasi arrived on the scene in 2004 with gold medal wins at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Games already in the books.
But the American juggernaut continued to roll on Saturday with Taurasi at the controls steering the U.S. to a fifth straight Olympic title.
The final was billed as a gold medal showdown between two unbeaten teams, the United States and France, but ended the same way as every other contest involving the Americans since 1996; in a blowout with the U.S. on top blasting the French 86-50.
Taurasi has experienced many things during her Olympic career but losing has not been one of them.
They have gone 12-years without experiencing the agony of defeat or even an anxious moment in London as they brushed aside opponents by an average of 34 points.
Despite evidence to the contrary Taurasi insisted it was not as easy as it looked.
"After three of them (gold medals) they are really hard even if you win a game by 30 or by 10," said Taurasi. "The whole process is really difficult to get 12 players to buy into one thing.
"By the end of it we succeeded in what we wanted to do and we were lucky enough to win a gold medal."
Luck, however, would hardly seem to have anything to do with a team that has gone 58-3 since women's basketball was added to the Olympic program in 1976.
If there is anyone in the athlete's village who can relate to Taurasi's situation it is two of her team mates Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings, who also celebrated their third gold medals.
But as U.S. head coach Geno Auriemma pointed out no one has more than Taurasi, who he rates as the world's best women's player.
"That is one of the great stories of these Olympics that may get left behind," said Auriemma. "I don't think in the history of women's basketball anyone has ever won more championships than Diana Taurasi.
"Diana Taurasi is the greatest team mate I have ever been around.
"If Diana was on the same team as (notorious mass murderer) Charles Manson and I said something bad about him she would say, "you know he is actually not that bad a guy, you just have to understand him".
"She has the ability to inspire her team mates more so than anyone I have ever met."
While it has been smooth sailing at the Games, away from the Olympics Taurasi has been buffeted by plenty of career turbulence from injuries to a positive doping test that was later thrown out due to unreliable testing procedures at the Turkish lab.
"That situation was so weird that as fast as it came it was just as fast it left my mind," said Taurasi."It affected me then but I'm over it now I've moved on.
"Imagine someone saying your career was over for something you didn't do. I think it would affect anyone in a strong way."
At 30, Taurasi's career is far from finished. After the London Games she plans to resume her professional career in Europe and is considering staying on for the 2016 Rio Summer Games.
"I usually don't get really emotional when you win something but for some reason when we walked into the arena afterwards it kind of hit me that this might be my last, it might not be," said Taurasi. "I don't think it ever gets old."
(Editing by Nigel Hunt; For all the latest Olympics news go to http://www.reuters.com/london-olympics-2012)