Olympics Summer

'Something that you will never forget': Canada women's basketball team gears up for Tokyo

The Canadian women moved into Tampa this week, the first time the team had gathered in 15 months, for the start of a rigorous two-month final push to the Tokyo Olympics.

Canada opens the Games on July 26 against No. 8 Serbia

Most of the Canadian women's basketball team moved into Tampa this week to start preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. (@CanBball/Twitter)

Edmonton signage has gone up on the walls of the Toronto Raptors' temporary practice facility in Tampa to help Canada's women's basketball team feel at home.

The Canadian women moved in this week, the first time the team had gathered in 15 months, for the start of a rigorous two-month final push to the Tokyo Olympics.

Every day begins with a nasal swab test for COVID-19. The team is living and practising in the same hotel where the displaced Raptors had set up shop.

Players, many of whom travelled straight from seasons in Europe to Florida, won't be able to see family or friends until after the Olympics.

"We've got a very tight bubble," said head coach Lisa Thomaidis. "So, even when we have days off, you can't go to a store, you can't shop anywhere, you can't get food in, it's very strict.

"So, a significant commitment that these players and staff have made to get through this."

'Enjoy every step of this process'

Edmonton has been the team's home base for the past nine years, but tight protocols around the third wave COVID-19 in Alberta forced Canada Basketball to scrap plans at the 11th hour for a pre-Olympic camp there.

"Obviously very disappointed that we can't be in Edmonton . . . and for Edmonton as well not being able to host us after a tough year for them, but they're in our hearts from afar," said two-time Olympian Miranda Ayim.

Team Canada head coach Lisa Thomaidis, centre-left, says players will talk about the training process running up to Tokyo for the rest of their lives. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

Like a rite of passage, veteran players often tell of the summer of 2010, when they spent 40 days living and training at the University of Fraser Valley ahead of the world championships.

"I said to our group, this is going to be our 40 days, but it's going to be longer than that, and there's going to be a lot more restrictions, but it will be something that you will never forget, and you're going to talk about for the rest of your lives," Thomaidis said.

"It's all about the process too, enjoy every step of this process, whatever it looks like . . . you get to write your story in how you approach it and what you get out of it."

Identity of relentlessness

The No. 4-ranked Canadians will play their first games since they qualified for Tokyo in February of 2020 at the AmeriCup, June 11-19 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Then it's back to Tampa, then on to Tokyo.

It's a major commitment by the Canadian women, but Ayim said it's one the team is built for.

"We have three words that we live by: dynamic, relentless, and together," said the 33-year-old from London, Ont. "That was our identity much earlier than this came along, but it 100 per cent fits into this pandemic paradigm.

"It's just that dynamic piece and resilient piece of staying together and staying focused on what you can control."

Ayim soaks up her finale

Tokyo will be Ayim's Olympic swan song. The six-foot-three forward announced her pending retirement from the game prior to her pro season with Basket Landes.

In a fitting farewell, Basket Landes won its first French League title two weeks ago. The team, based in Landes on the Atlantic coast, will retire Ayim's No. 21 next season.

"Hopefully I'll be able to go back to France in the fall, and kind of say all my goodbyes, have some celebrations and be able to kind of have that moment in the gym with all the fans," said Ayim.

The pandemic meant no fans were at the historic final.

Power Forward Miranda Ayim of the Canadian Women's Olympic Basketball Team in 2016. Ayim will retire following the Olympics. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

Knowing it was her final season, Ayim soaked up every moment of the past few months.

"It definitely gives you more of a perspective of enjoying every moment, and a broader view of what's going on, and what's important," she said.

Tears were shed along the way.

"Oh, 100 per cent," Ayim said with a laugh. "It kind of came in waves, there were some [potential elimination] games where it could have been my last game, and then even before the semis, my roommate and I were like, 'Oh, this might be our last game playing together.'

"And then we were like 'Well, definitely the finals is our last game together.' There were many false starts, but enjoying every moment."

Back at home on the court

Arriving in Tampa late last week was like another false start. The players were required to quarantine in their hotel rooms for three days, so their first meetings were virtual.

"At least we're all in the same hotel, but we're still on the screen, and then you see everyone but you can't really hug," Thomaidis said. "So, it's exciting, but we're still behind our masks and have to kind of stay distanced."

"But then when we got back on the court [on Tuesday], it was like, OK, we feel back at home now. And people let loose and you could see the emotion. It was fantastic to finally get back out there and see everyone."

Thomaidis is still waiting on Jamie Scott to clear COVID-19 protocols, and Nirra Fields is in Turkey playing out the end of her season with Anatalya 07.

Canada's WNBA players — Natalie Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton — won't join the team until mid-July. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)
Canada's WNBA players — Natalie Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton — won't join the team until mid-July, days before the team departs for Tokyo.

Canada opens the Games on July 26 against No. 8 Serbia, then plays Korea (19th) on July 29 and third-ranked Spain on Aug. 1. The Canadians, who were eliminated in the quarterfinals in 2012 and 2016, have their sights set on the podium in Tokyo.

The Tokyo quarterfinals are Aug. 4, the semis are two days later, while the gold-medal game is Aug. 8.

The Canadian men, meanwhile, will join the women in Tampa on June 16 ahead of their last-chance qualifying tournament June 29-July 4 in Victoria. The men's team announced arguably the strongest training camp roster in program history on Thursday.

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