The Chronicle Herald (Metro)

Canada in medal hunt


The women heading to Tokyo to represent Canada in basketball will never take making an Olympics for granted. But rest assured, they aren't just happy to be there.

No, after finishing seventh in 2016 and eighth in 2012 in their first Olympics since 2000, this group means business with one clear goal in mind — getting on the podium.

Given the depth of talent and experience on hand — Canada will feature three players competing in their third Olympics, three in their second and is ranked No. 4 in the world by FIBA — it's a realistic goal.

“We're focussed on bringing a medal back to Canada and they say ‘ third times the charm,' so hopefully, this is the summer our dreams come to fruition,” standout forward Natalie Achonwa said when the roster was named. Achonwa, star guard Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton are the three WNBA players on the team.

Canada went undefeated at a qualifying event in Belgium in February of 2020.

“We started something last year in February and we're excited to finish it,” team elder stateswoma­n Kim Gaucher said on a media call on June 30.

Gaucher, 37, has seen it all in her many years with the program and is excited to see what this incarnatio­n can do now that the likes of Achonwa and Nurse are a bit older and more dangerous.

“They are in the prime of their careers now and I can't wait to see what they do in Tokyo,” Gaucher said.

Gaucher wasn't a certainty for Tokyo because the IOC was barring breastfeed­ing mothers from bringing their young children to Japan until logic won out.

Achonwa was a maybe too, having suffered a knee injury in June while playing for the Minnesota Lynx. Thankfully, the 28-year-old, who was the youngest player to make the senior roster ever at 16, is expected to be available.

“We're confident she's going to be ready,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis said on her media call.

“That's the plan. We're certainly counting on her and that was a big part of naming her to the roster. It being dependent on her being ready. She's going to be cutting the timelines pretty close, but knowing Nat, she'll be ready.”

Canada isn't just bringing crafty veterans to Tokyo, there will also be six first-time Olympians (led by star in waiting Laeticia Amihere, Aaliyah Edwards and Shaina Pellington) and an influx of speed and athleticis­m. That's by design. Canada is trying to take advantage of the athleticis­m advantage over most opponents and wants to pick up the pace to create a new identity. The aim is to not just be the grind it out, lockdown defensive group we've seen so often in the past.

“You've seen that shift over the years. (A) slow shift in philosophy and recruiting different player types,” said Miranda Ayim, a three-time Olympian.

“Bring solid Canadian defence that we've always hung our hat on and integratin­g it with this dynamic offensive attack. I think it's the perfect storm and I hope we show that.”

Canada displayed some glimpses of this evolution at the recent Americup, spreading the floor and attacking in various ways, but much of this group wasn't on that team and the reality is the pandemic cut into the preparatio­n time quite a bit. Instead of building on the qualifying success from February 2020, the world shut down, leaving the team members isolated.

“Those games were critical,” Thomaidis said of the AmeriCup. “We hadn't been together for 16 months. We hadn't been tested; we hadn't played. Playing in games that mattered was critical.

“It was important for us to see where our shortcomin­gs were and address those now.”

The other teams will be in a similar boat though, so it is to Canada's advantage how much many of these women have played together over the years.

“We do have that familiarit­y with one another, and I think that's going to be really important considerin­g we haven't had a lot of time leading up to this,” Thomaidis said.

“It's difficult if you haven't seen each other for a long time, but I find we're falling into place,” said Ayim.

Mainstays like Nurse, the face of the program, will be called on to deliver on and off the floor.

“I would hope that I'm a much different player than I was in Rio (in 2012),” Nurse said.

“A more confident player ...I'll use my experience as much as possible to help the young players.”

And while the older heads will be leading the way, you can expect the younger players to be competing with extra motivation too. That's because Ayim is retiring from basketball after the tournament and Gaucher, the legend who has been part of the program since 2001, is done after this, too.

Having Gaucher in the lineup should be a huge shot in the arm for Canada.

“Kim has given this program her blood, sweat and tears for a number of years now,” Nurse said. “I know we're a better team whenever she's on the court because of her leadership.”

Shay Colley, a guard originally from East Preston is a member of the Canadian team.

Canada will take on France in an exhibition on Wednesday before opening against World No. 8 Serbia on July 26. The other early matchups come against Korea and No. 3 Spain before the quarter-finals.

 ?? CANADA BASKETBALL ?? Shay Colley, originally from East Preston, is a member of the Canadian women's Olympic basketball team.
CANADA BASKETBALL Shay Colley, originally from East Preston, is a member of the Canadian women's Olympic basketball team.

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