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Tuesday, November 11, 2008: Candice Wiggins made it look so easy at La Jolla Country Day as a McDonald’s High School All-American girls basketball player.

Even as a freshman in 2001, she gracefully ran the court with the body control of a college athlete. She didn’t turn 15 until the week before the playoffs, but she led the Torreys to a CIF State Division V title and was named a first-team All-CIF in the San Diego Section for the first of four straight years.

Wiggins, though, never made it easy on herself. She had plenty of talent to get by on ability alone — as many high school athletes do — but she kept pushing to a higher level.

Anytime she felt tired during workouts in the school’s gym, she gazed up on the wall at a mural of La Jolla Country Day alum Rashaan Salaam holding the 1994 Heisman Trophy that he won as a Colorado running back. Wiggins once told LJCD girls basketball coach Terri Bamford that some day she wanted to be worthy of a mural placed on the wall.

On Friday, when she was honored at a school assembly in the gym, she recalled her dream with a laugh. She said would admonish herself back to reality by saying, “Girl, you’d have to win a Heisman to be up there!”

No she didn’t.

Wiggins won the 2007-08 Wade Trophy as the national player of the year in women’s college basketball her senior year at Stanford. During the LJCD assembly before students, faculty and staff, a mural of Wiggins was unveiled next to Salaam’s.

“I didn’t know a lot about him when I first saw the picture, but it was an inspiration because I knew it was something he had to work for,” Wiggins said. “It told a story through a picture. When I was tired, I looked at it and reminded myself, ‘That’s what I want to get. That’s where I want to be.’

“I know it sounds crazy and weird, but I got so much inspiration from that picture during all the work I did in this gym. And now I’m looking at one of me.”

Salaam attended the assembly and presented Wiggins with awards on behalf of the Hall of Champions (my day job). She also received proclamation from the City sponsored by City Councilman Scott Peters that proclaimed Friday as “Candice Wiggins Day.”

When Salaam was told the story of how Wiggins said the mural inspired her, he smiled and shook his head in wonderment.

“That’s a blessing to know you were an inspiration for an athlete that is as celebrated as she is,” Salaam said. “It’s touching to know I motivated her. It shows you that women’s sports are on the rise and female athletes should be as celebrated as much as male athletes. Now young girls can look up at her. It’s nice to be a part of this; it really is.”

Before Wiggins finished her college career, she was a four-time All-American, three-time Pac-10 Player of the Year, broke Lisa Leslie’s Pac-10 career scoring record and led Stanford to an NCAA Tournament runner-up finish.

As a rookie in the WNBA, she was the third pick of the draft by the Minnesota Lynx and won the league’s “Sixth Woman of the Year Award.”

She recently turned only 22, but she has already established herself as one of San Diego’s most accomplished women athletes. The only question is how many more awards she’ll collect as she takes a place alongside Marureen Connolly (tennis), Mickey Wright (golf), Karen Hantz Susman (tennis), Gail Devers (track and field), Shannon MacMillan (soccer) and Monique Henderson (track and field).

Interestingly, and it’s a sign of the growth of women’s athletics, only MacMillan and Wiggins on such a list represent a team sport.

Wiggins has been a mainstay of USA national age-group teams and won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games in 2007. But she wants a medal from a future Olympics and a WNBA title is another goal.

“I remember thinking at an early age I wanted to play in the NBA because there wasn’t a WNBA,” Wiggins said. “Now there is a WNBA, and it’s great to be a pioneer in the league. Now young girls can strive to play in the WNBA.”

And just about any girl passing through the La Jolla Country Day gym — as a student at the school or as an opponent of the Torreys — can look up on the gym wall at her mural for inspiration.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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