Canadian women's basketball team following Raptors to Tampa for training camp

Canada Basketball announced a roster of 20 players invited to training camp beginning Thursday, May 20, in Tampa. It's the beginning of a 10-week journey intended to finish on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.

Florida move the beginning of 10 weeks of travel culminating in Tokyo Olympics

Team Canada head coach Lisa Thomaidis leads the team during a 2016 training camp. Canada Basketball was forced to move its upcoming camp to Tampa, Fla., due to ongoing pandemic restrictions in Canada. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian women's basketball team is making like the Raptors and moving to Tampa, Fla.

But unlike its NBA counterpart, the move is only step one of the 10-week journey to the Tokyo Olympics.

Canada Basketball announced a roster of 20 players invited to training camp beginning Thursday, May 20, in Tampa. Three players — guards Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton and forward Natalie Achonwa — won't attend as the WNBA season tips off on Friday.

While the original plan was to hold camp in the team's training home of Edmonton, ongoing restrictions surrounding the pandemic forced the relocation.

Denise Dignard, who was recently named general manager, said the decision to go ahead with the Tampa plan was made on Tuesday. A spokesperson for Alberta Health confirmed with CBC Sports on Thursday that it had not yet approved or rejected the Edmonton plan.

"The health and safety of our athletes and our staff, as well as our preparedness given that we haven't been together since February 2020, are the utmost priority and drive all of our decision making," Dignard said in an interview with CBC Sports on Thursday.

Dignard said the organization had been working with the federal government on training exemptions for athletes that were entering from outside the country. However, with training camp creeping closer Canada Basketball sought to alleviate the pressure on the government and make the move to Florida.

Head coach Lisa Thomaidis said she wasn't part of the relocation process, but that it came together quickly.

"It's been crazy just having to change all the plans and relocate and still make it all happen. We're getting together in a week's time. So it's been a lot to manage," she said.

The women's team, which is ranked fourth by FIBA, will move into the Raptors' training facilities at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Tampa. The Raptors' season concludes on Sunday.

For two weeks, a contingent of about 30 Team Canada members — 17 players and around 13 support staffers, including Thomaidis and Dignard — will live in the hotel while undergoing daily COVID-19 testing.

"It's not disrupting our training plans and [it's] providing our team and our athletes a five-star training environment. So it's consistent with our plan that we had for Edmonton," Dignard said.

The training camp itself is expected to look similar to previous in-person iterations, with daily meetings and practices that range from on-court strategy to mental health.

Won't return to Canada before Olympics

Once the national team lands in Florida, it won't return to Canada until after the Olympics. Training camp runs until June 4, one week before the start of the FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico.

At the conclusion of that tournament, Dignard said the team will likely return to Tampa for pre-Olympic training before departing for Japan, where it will reside in Kariya City, its pre-Games host and sister city of Mississauga, ahead of Tokyo.

The last time the team gathered in person was when it qualified for the Olympics in February 2020 in Belgium.

"It'll be fun because of when they reconnect, they're just so happy to be together. It's a really cool feeling for them to come back to their basketball and Canadian family and certainly lots of excitement around the stretch here, preparing for the Olympics," Dignard said.

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, a centre who chose to skip the WNBA season in order to focus on the national team, is among some players still in the midst of their international seasons. She could be playing as late as Saturday for French team Lyon.

"It's going to be a bit of a learning curve at the beginning for everyone — not just the new players coming in," Raincock-Ekunwe said.

"Just really finding our flow, finding our rhythm and our identity. We know the core principles of our team. It's just going to be fine-tuning the things we need to work on for the AmeriCup and also the Olympics."

The Toronto Raptors' new practice facility built in the Marriott in Tampa is shown above. (Toronto Raptors/HO/The Canadian Press)

Quick turnaround

The schedule is nothing new to women's basketball players, who experience the frenzied nature of bouncing between international seasons, WNBA play and national-team commitments whether there's a pandemic or not.

Still, a tournament like the AmeriCup — a qualifier for future World Cups — a month before the Olympics, leaves Thomaidis holding her breath on injuries.

"We're looking at those as preparation games, for sure. That's one sort of goal in mind with those games. But the other one, obviously, is to perform well and certainly our goal is to win the AmeriCup," Thomaidis said.

Among the 20 invitees are four Canadians who played in college this season, including UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, South Carolina's Laeticia Amihere, Arizona's Shaina Pellington and Louisville's Merissah Russell. The first three all reached the Final Four.

Additionally, seven players who represented Canada at the 2016 Olympics — Nurse, Achonwa, Raincock-Ekunwe, Miah-Marie Langlois, Nirra Fields, Kim Gaucher and Miranda Ayim — are invited to camp.

The team is about to go from 15 months of separation to 10 weeks of being together all the time, with the culmination hopefully being a spot on the podium in Tokyo.

Canada has only won one previous Olympic basketball medal, when the men took silver on a clay court at the 1936 Berlin Games.

"This has been 15 months of being remote, being away from one another, and I just can't wait to see everyone and see them back on the court and just together again. We've got a very special group," Thomaidis said.

Full roster

  • Natalie Achonwa, forward, Minnesota Lynx (WNBA)/Famila Schio (Italy).
  • Kayla Alexander, forward, Mithra Castors Braine (Belgium).
  • Laeticia Amihere, forward, South Carolina (NCAA).
  • Miranda Ayim, forward, Basket Landes (France).
  • Bridget Carleton, guard, Minnesota Lynx (WNBA).
  • Shay Colley, guard, Charnay (France).
  • Quinn Dornstauder, centre, Cadi La Seu (Spain).
  • Aaliyah Edwards, guard, UConn (NCAA).
  • Nirra Fields, guards, Anatalya 07 (Turkey).
  • Kim Gaucher, guard, USO Mondeville (France).
  • Ruth Hamblin, centre, Politechnika Gdanska (Poland).
  • Sami Hill, guard, Nantes Reze Basket (France).
  • Aislinn Konig, guard, Fribourg (Switzerland).
  • Miah-Marie Langlois, guard.
  • Kia Nurse, guard, Phoenix Mercury (WNBA).
  • Shaina Pellington, guard, Arizona (NCAA).
  • Daneesha Provo, guard, Eisvogel Freiburg (Germany).
  • Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, forward, Lyon ASVEL (France).
  • Merissah Russell, guard, Louisville (NCAA).
  • Jamie Scott, guard, Tarbes (France).

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