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Busy year for top female athlete

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Candace Parker

Candace Parker

It's been a whirlwind year for Candace Parker.

She led Tennessee to a second straight national championship in women's basketball, was the first pick in the WNBA draft, took the league's MVP and rookie of the year awards, and helped the U.S. win a fourth-straight Olympic gold medal.

Now Parker has been selected female athlete of the year by members of The Associated Press.

"Wow, that's amazing," the 22-year-old Parker said. "It's been a great year from so many standpoints. I haven't really had a chance to sit back and let it all sink in."

Her selection Tuesday ended a five-year run in which a golfer (Annika Sorenstam, then Lorena Ochoa) won the award — the longest streak of any sport. Parker's accomplishments weren't lost on Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

"Talk about hitting all the high points of one's life. She enjoyed an incredible run of back-to-back national championships, Olympic gold and all of her individual accolades," the Hall of Famer said. "It was an exceptional year for an exceptional athlete and person."

Parker received 36 votes from members of The Associated Press, barely edging Ochoa, who had won the previous two years. Ochoa won seven times on the LPGA Tour, including her second major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and led the money list for the third consecutive season.

Ochoa finished one vote shy of becoming only the fourth three-time winner of the award. Rounding out the top five were gymnast Nastia Liukin, swimmer Dara Torres and gymnast Shawn Johnson.

Liukin took home the biggest prize in her ongoing rivalry with Johnson, edging her teammate and Olympic village roommate for the all-around title in Beijing. The gold medal had extra meaning for Liukin, coming 20 years after her father and coach, Valeri, finished a close second to his teammate at the Seoul Games. Liukin finished with five medals, one more than her father won in 1988.

The 41-year-old Torres won three silver medals at the Olympics. Johnson won four medals, saving the best for last. After getting silvers in the team competition, all-around and floor exercise, she finally won gold on balance beam, the last event.

Michael Phelps was a runaway selection for the AP's top male athlete, announced Monday. Besides Phelps, only Olympic sprinting sensation Usain Bolt and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning got more than a single vote. Phelps was named on 172 ballots, becoming just the third swimmer to claim the award.

Parker is only the third basketball player to win the women's award, joining Sheryl Swoopes in 1993 and Rebecca Lobo in 1995. Parker averaged 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in leading Los Angeles to the Western Conference semifinals before the Sparks lost in three games to the San Antonio Silver Stars.

"Losing has made me hungry to get better for next year," Parker said. "It's been on my mind since we lost to San Antonio."

She had a high of 40 points and grabbed 10 or more rebounds in 17 games. She led the league in double-doubles with 17, led the league in rebounding and led rookies in scoring, blocks (2.3) and minutes (33.6).

Losing is one thing that Parker didn't do often at Tennessee. Playing with a bruised and braced shoulder, she helped the Lady Vols win consecutive championships. She became the fourth player to win back-to-back Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors and left Tennessee with a year left of eligibility. She was clearly ready for the next level.

"Candace has invested so much time in her game and her skills. That's been the difference. Candace has separated herself by her competitive drive and her hard work," Summitt said. "She spends countless hours in the gym on her own. She knows her roles being the go-to player and a great teammate. How much more can one person accomplish in a year?"

Parker joined the short list of rookies to win the MVP in their first year in the major sports. Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld did it in the NBA, Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki in major league baseball, and Jim Brown in the NFL.

"I had no idea coming into the season that I would have the chance to be an MVP," said Parker, who became only the second player ever to dunk in the WNBA. "There are so many talented players in that league that I idolized growing up."

More than just a star on the court, Parker has become the face of the league. Her jersey was the WNBA's top seller, and being a role model to so many young fans is important to the young star.

"It means a lot to me and is a huge responsibility," Parker said. "You want to continue to carry yourself in a positive way. I was lucky to have Pat Summitt as a coach, and she taught us how to be role models."

Parker's already had a busy offseason, getting married to Sacramento Kings forward Shelden Williams. She also plans to head to Russia next month to play overseas.