Basketball

Scattered around world, Canada's women's BB team faces extra challenges in advance of Tokyo Olympics

From Gdansk to Mondeville to Toronto, the Canadian women’s basketball team finds itself scattered across the globe. That fact on its own isn’t different from any other year. The difference in a pandemic is they don’t know when they’ll come together next.

Players stay connected from places in Canada, France, Poland and beyond

Canada's guard Miah-Marie Langlois and national teammates cheer during a game at the 2016 Olympics. Langlois and the rest of the team are now spread across the world playing overseas, unsure of when they'll come together next. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

If it was up to Ruth Hamblin, she might be in space right now.

Instead, she's self-isolating in an apartment in Poland after her basketball team experienced a coronavirus outbreak.

"Unfortunately, I have checked out the astronaut requirements [and I'm] about two inches too tall," said Hamblin, who has studied aerospace engineering.

At six-foot-six, Hamblin signed to play centre for Politechnika Gdanska in Poland's Basket Liga Kobiet.

The Houston, B.C., native said she was on the fence about playing overseas this year, but ultimately chose to go because it was a job.

From Gdansk to Mondeville to Toronto, the Canadian women's basketball team now finds itself scattered across the globe.

That fact on its own isn't different from any other year. The difference in a pandemic is they don't know when they'll come together next. The team is ranked No. 4 in the world and is a strong contender for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

An international competitive window — when there would typically be a tournament or practices — opens Nov. 8, but the logistics of gathering a group of people from around the world mean both Canada Basketball and its players are unsure on how they will proceed.

For now, the team meets monthly on Zoom and the players connect on an ongoing group chat.

In March, Hamblin was playing with fellow Canadians Miah-Marie Langlois and Jamie Scott for Dynamo Novisibirsk in Russia when their league shut down due to the pandemic. Still, the team scheduled mandatory practices as the Canadians saw pleas from the prime minister to return home.

Hamblin obliged, only to learn her team was fining her for skipping practice when she returned to North America.

"I ended up having to terminate my own contract, which at that point I was like, this is worth it. I don't need money. I just want to be safe from this pandemic. And so, yeah, just kind of cut ties. And thankfully, it seemed to be on pretty good terms, but it was definitely a bit of an arm wrestle to get there," Hamblin said.

The 26-year-old wound up having her fine rescinded after she says the general manager and president got on the same page.

In August, Hamblin signed in Poland.

"I'm just going to stick to Europe because there's always going to be a flight back from Europe. You just never know from Russia," Hamblin said.

Canada's Ruth Hamblin is seen above at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The 26-year-old is currently playing overseas in Poland in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

When she arrived in Gdansk around one month ago, she tested negative for coronavirus and positive for antibodies. The league is not doing regular testing during the season beyond the initial intake. 

Recently, one of Hamblin's teammates felt sick and tested positive for the virus. At least five other players have since contracted the virus, though Hamblin did not. The team won't play for two weeks.

"It'll be interesting what happens. Our season just could end up having a lot of postponed games as teams eventually test positive. But, yeah, I don't know what it's going to look like. And I wish that they would have a few more protocols. But at this point it's out of our hands," Hamblin said.

Hamblin earned her mechanical engineering degree at Oregon State, with a focus on aerospace. She joined the rocketry club at the suggestion of a professor, and the field is something she's eyeing once her basketball career is over.

For now, she's just hoping to play.

Langlois rehabbing in Toronto

Like Hamblin, Langlois isn't returning to Russia. The 29-year-old was injured last October and chose to skip this season to get healthy ahead of the Olympics. Scott is the only of the three still with Novisibirsk.

Langlois had surgery to fix a sciatic nerve issue last week.

"Within a year, I'm hoping I have my Masters, become an Olympian for the second time and hopefully have a winning season at the University of Toronto," Langlois said.

Also like Hamblin, Langlois knows there's more to life beyond basketball. She's currently working toward her Masters of innovation and entrepreneurship at Queen's University.

In a positive spin on the pandemic, Langlois is taking advantage of online classes to remain home in Toronto and work as an unpaid coach at U of T, where former national teammate Tamara Tatham is an assistant.

"She became a big mentor of mine, to be honest, to see how she coaches and lead the girls. And she's really helping me get better with my ability to be a leader — not as a player, but as a coach to a player, which is completely different," Langlois said.

At the team's pre-Olympic qualifiers last October, when Langlois first noticed the injury, she battled through two-minute shifts per half where she knew her body wasn't right.

The U of T opportunity isn't just good for her future, but for her present too as she trains alongside the players, even though pandemic restrictions mean no defence is allowed.

"Just working on the basketball IQ, becoming a coach in the sense of seeing the game in a different way. It has definitely helped a lot leadership-wise and just looking at the whole picture. So once I'm able to get back on the court, I'm just going to work my way back up to an elite Olympian," Langlois said.

Gaucher stationed in France

Veteran Kim Gaucher didn't face the same playing questions as Hamblin and Langlois when her French league season ended in March.

Gaucher and her American husband contemplated returning home, but travel restrictions made things complicated enough to lead them to stay in Mondeville, where Gaucher has played since 2015.

The 36-year-old Surrey, B.C., native plays a leadership role on the developmental team, though she still averaged 10.9 points per game last season.

Gaucher says protocols are constantly changing in France, but she's still felt comfortable. While the season has begun, Gaucher's yet to play due to injury.

"I still feel quite, quite safe here. Everything's very well disinfected and stuff. … It's going to be very interesting, but I feel like COVID is anywhere right now. And so even if I stayed home, there would still be still be heightened risk of going out and training and having to get to a gym," Gaucher said.

Gaucher receives physiotherapy during a media availability ahead of the Rio Olympics. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

Certain arenas are allowing fans for games, while others are not. The league recently banned drinking at games. It also limited testing just to players who are symptomatic following a spate of positive tests.

Despite the uncertainty, Gaucher remains happy to play out the season in France.

"During the pandemic, we still got paid, so our salary, our contracts run through July 1 and all of us were still paid through July 1, but that was not the case in a lot of countries," Gaucher said.

Gaucher had contemplated retirement after the 2016 Olympics, but Canada's seventh-place finish left her wanting more. The delayed Games meant another year of training on the road to Tokyo.

"It was a whole lot tougher pill to swallow when they were postponed. Taking it day by day, month by month and seeing where the body stands come July 2021 now," Gaucher said.

The Canadian also works every other week with Mondeville's feeder team, helping to develop young French talent.

WNBAers take different routes

Two of Canada's top young talents, Bridget Carleton and Kia Nurse, are taking different approaches to their WNBA off-season.

Carleton, 24, enjoyed a breakout year with the Minnesota Lynx. She's currently at home in Chatham, Ont., quarantining ahead of her sister's wedding, but will head to France after to join Landerneau Bretagne Basket.

With six other Canadians, including Gaucher, in France, Carleton said the familiarity in the league is something she cherished.

Nurse, meanwhile, is already looking ahead. Following post-season rehab, she returned home to Hamilton, Ont., where she's working as a basketball analyst for TSN.

"I wanted to get myself and my body a chance to rest a little bit because it's been so many years of 12 months a year of basketball that I really thought that this was a great opportunity to continue to grow off the court and learn and do something that I love in broadcasting," Nurse said.

Nurse and Carleton both played in Australia last year.

Currently, there are also Canadians in Spain and Belgium and at American colleges. 

The national team prides itself on its grit, hustle and basketball IQ. If any team can withstand the extreme separation, it should be the Canadian women.

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