Basketball

Inside the Canadian women's basketball team's virtual training camp

It was exactly 367 days ago when Canada’s women’s basketball team qualified for Tokyo 2020. Fast-forward to today, and the team is coming off a week-long virtual training camp, unable to meet in person due to the pandemic that forced the one-year postponement of the Olympics.

Week-long event began with assurance Olympics will happen from Marnie McBean

Canada head coach Lisa Thomaidis, left, and forward Natalie Achonwa are seen above ahead of the team's Olympic qualification tournament in February 2020. The team has not met in person since, and recently concluded a week-long virtual training camp. (Kurt Desplenter/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

It was exactly 367 days ago when Canada's women's basketball team qualified for Tokyo 2020.

Fast-forward to today, and the team is coming off a week-long virtual training camp, unable to meet in person due to the pandemic that forced the one-year postponement of the Olympics.

"That was sort of like the last big thing before the wheels fell off, and you think back to your mindset and just how everything felt at that point in time in Belgium: living the life, competing, playing against the best in the world, winning games, qualifying for [the] Tokyo Olympics, doing it all together. We were on top of the world," head coach Lisa Thomaidis said of the Olympic qualifying tournament played last February.

Training camp kicked off first thing Monday with words from Canadian chef de mission Marnie McBean, who reassured the team that Tokyo 2020 would indeed be going ahead in 2021.

McBean advised the team to block out reports that may arise in the coming months, such as the single-source story from the Times of London in late January that claimed the Japanese government had concluded to cancel the 2021 Games.

"It was good timing because it had come out [two] week[s] prior to us getting together. And so for her to come on the Monday morning and just be kind of like, 'OK, this is what's really happening,' it was good just to kind of get rid of the elephant in the room," Thomaidis said.

McBean's insistence set the tone for a week of daily two-hour meetings covering everything from team vision to Olympic logistics to Tokyo heat.

"[We] went through a lot of envisioning and projecting what it's going to be like in Tokyo, the conditions, the living arrangements, our competition schedule or training schedule leading into it," Thomaidis said.

Those exercises helped put players' minds at ease about attending the Olympics during a pandemic — not that there was much hesitance after already waiting this long to compete.

Forward Ruth Hamblin said it was important to hear assurance from McBean when she sees so much negativity surrounding the Olympics every day on Twitter.

"I feel like this meeting just kind of solidified what we have as a team and our system and our momentum. It's going to be different, but it's still an Olympics. I think that that doesn't change. And if anything, it's more than ever because the world needs some positivity," said Hamblin, who currently plays in Poland.

Social activity welcomed

With questions surrounding the Olympics sorted, Thomaidis began instilling some of the team's on-court systems. It's tough to implement anything too complicated over Zoom, but some base principles helped sharpen how the team will attempt Canada's first-ever Olympic women's basketball medal.

After so much time apart, the social aspect of the week was also welcome to both coach and players alike.

Some meetings included games with quiz software Kahoot, and another ice-breaker matching Emojis to different players kicked off each day's festivities.

"It's just good old times, like the familiarity with these people because we spent so much time together. It's really good to just hang out with them," Hamblin said.

"I think more than anything, it was just that the energy that they came to the meetings with was pretty cool. People are tuning in from all around the world," Thomaidis reiterated.

The team will continue to meet regularly over Zoom, likely every three or four weeks with frequency increasing as the Olympics approach.

Next opportunity to meet in May

While some other teams, including the U.S., were able to meet in person during the international window, Canada was stuck online with players dispersed throughout the U.S., France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany.

Forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who plays for Lyon in France, thinks that could work in Canada's favour.

"I don't think anyone expects us to get together two hours every day and watch film together and have a virtual reality. And I'm just really happy that we're doing these things that can gain us a competitive edge over some of the other countries," she said.

Canada's next opportunity to meet in person is in May, when the team hopes to hold training camp in Edmonton ahead of the FIBA AmeriCup in June.

Overseas pro leagues will be done by then, meaning the logistics of gathering could be simplified. Then again, planning in a pandemic is fluid.

"I think it's going to be one of the strangest Olympics ever," Hamblin said. "And our ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances is going to be a key to our success."

A basketball team going over a year without practice ahead of its biggest tournament certainly qualifies as strange. But from all corners of the world, Team Canada appears to be adjusting well.

And after the long period of inactivity, that competitive fire only burns brighter.

"We're a basketball team, we just want to go and compete. I think everyone's just finally looking forward to that. So, yeah, definitely some excitement building," Thomaidis said.

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