Whether you are a fan or not of the Olympics - and despite
the extreme ease in which cynicism can drape these expensive, political
extravaganzas - it's hard not to jump on the bandwagon for two weeks every two
years. And that's how most sports fans view it.
The majority of people care very
little about modern pentathlon in May of an odd-numbered year. And in Canada
unfortunately, too many people don't care about basketball, especially the
Yet rightfully so, we'll all be cheering for our senior
women's national team at the London Games as the squad makes their first Olympic appearance in 12 years. However like most other Olympic sports, many of us won't
think about everything that went in to getting there, some of us preferring to
throw around labels in the event a team of individual athlete comes home
For a sport as global as basketball, reaching London is an
achievement in itself for the Canadian women, especially given the changes
around the program in the past decade.
"It's hard to get to the Olympics," head coach Allison
McNeill said last week in Toronto before the team took off for England. "I don't
think people realize that until you have to compete against so many countries
that have the same goal as you."
Canada's ticket to London was aptly punched on Canada Day
with a 71-63 victory over Japan at the Olympic qualifier in Turkey. On it's own
it was a coronation of sorts for a program that has been on a gradual incline
since McNeill took the reins in 2002.
While they missed out on being Olympians
in 2004 and 2008 with WNBA talent like Tammy Sutton-Brown and Kim Smith (Smith
is on this team but no longer plays in the top pro women's league in the world),
reaching London is a testament to the decade of hard work and resiliency that
has flourished under McNeill's system.
"It's a pretty big deal. We're excited," said McNeill.
The only player returning from Canada's last appearance in
Sydney - the high water mark for Canada Basketball as a whole - is point guard
Teresa Gabriele, who in a decade and a half with the national program has
learned to be philosophical about success.
"I've been playing on the team for 15 years, it could have
potentially been my fourth Olympics now," said Gabriele, 33. "But it's only my
second ... so (we) don't let these opportunities pass you by when they come your
The team's resiliency was on display in Turkey, where after a
tough three-point loss to Croatia, the squad bounced back the next day with a
17-point victory over Argentina and the win over Japan the day after that -
teams that had both defeated Canada in the past year.
"A lot of people thought we were done (after the loss to
Croatia) but we didn't think that," said McNeill. "I think those wins (over
Argentina and Japan) galvanized us ... which is good because we're about to go
play the best teams in the world.
"It's a very close knit group ... they've been through a lot
The "team game" is a cliché in basketball more than other
sports given the star-based nature of the sport, but Canada plays it well.
McNeill runs a 12-deep rotation, and they've earned respect from their opponents
for the results. "We don't have four WNBA players ... we don't have a superstar,
but we have a great team," she said. "Our identity has always been, 'be the best
on that day.'"
As for the Olympics themselves, the reality is Canada is in
tough. They are the fifth-ranked team in the their six-nation pool, with only
host Great Britain behind them. Canada opens against Russia on Saturday, with
Britain, France, Brazil and world No. 2 Australia to follow.
Assistant coach Lisa Thomaidis agrees that at the very least,
the pressure is off. "In terms of our
pool, we're not looking too far ahead," she told me. "We're certainly not a
medal favourite going in, and that's just fine. Hopefully we can take some teams
And as for concerns about the circus that is the Olympics
alongside the distractions of a fortnight in the world's largest co-ed dorm,
McNeill is certain they won't be issues. "These girls have mental toughness,"
she said, referring to qualifier in Turkey. "We brought in a sports psychologist
in four years ago. We've done a ton of work in this area."
McNeill added they made a lot of changes after the 2010 world
championships in the Czech Republic, where Canada finished 12th.
"We've talked a lot about distractions, we've talked about mental toughness. If
we haven't prepared ourselves for this, it's going to be a shock to me."
Three players to watch
1. Teresa Gabriele, PG, Mission, B.C.
The starting point guard and team veteran brings a sense of
urgency to the team, according to McNeill. "She's very calm, she's not intimidated by any level of competition,"
2. Courtnay Pilypaitis, SG, Orleans, Ont.
The 23-year-old pro with VICI Kaunas in Lithuania dropped 21
points in the clincher against Japan, and McNeill loves her versatility. "She
can do a little bit of everything ... she's about six-foot-one and physical, an
3. Natalie Achonwa, PF, Guelph, Ont.
The soon-to-be junior at Notre Dame - who reached the NCAA
championship game in April - started with the national program at age 16. "She's
one of the most intelligent players I've ever coached," says McNeill.
The rest of the women
As per usual, the discussion begins and usually ends with
the United States. Our fine neighbours have convincingly dominated competition
at the Olympics since the women's game was added in Montreal in 1976, failing to
win gold only twice in Summer Games they participated in ('76 and '92). They've
never come away from an Olympics without hardware of some sort (the only
exception being the 1980 Moscow boycott).
Legendary Connecticut coach Geno
Auriemma's troops are a bit long in the tooth this year however, with half the
team over 30. Still, for what it's worth the squad led by Lindsay Whalen, Maya
Moore, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker has absolutely dominated their
pre-Olympic exhibition sked, winning by an average margin of 31.
Guard Diana Taurasi told the Associated Press that the team
has a chip on their shoulder this year. Despite winning four straight gold
medals, they still feel like they are still seeking respect. "That's a heck of a
motivator for all of us," she said. "Our level is so high, it becomes normal and
even to the public it's 'they should win the gold medal. If they don't it's a
Their toughest competition comes from Down Under, with the
Australians led by Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson. Russia is always a
contender, which is why Canada is in tough with the latter two in its pool. The
Czech Republic, Spain and Brazil round out the world top six, although Brazil
took a major hit Friday when they lost perhaps their top player, WNBA forward
Iziane Castro Marques, for the Games after suspension for violating an
unspecified team rule.
Bronze: Czech Republic
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