Twenty-five days to go and Canada is already anointing a new crop of Olympic heroes for the London Games and beyond.
On Saturday, it was unheralded Jessica Zelinka emerging from obscurity to beat two of Canada’s most prominent athletes, hurdlers Perdita Felicien and Priscilla shud-be Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, to qualify for the London Games in the 100-metre hurdles.
And on Sunday it was Courtnay Pilypaitis’s turn. The 6-foot-1 guard drained five three-pointers in propelling Canada’s women’s basketball team to its first Olympic berth since 2000 with a 71-63 win over Japan at the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Ankara, Turkey.
A freshly minted Olympian, Pilypaitis could already see the victory’s impact on Canada’s medal prospects beyond London.
“I think this is real big,” said the Orleans, Ont., native, who finished with 21 points and six assists. “All the young female basketball players now are going to be able to watch us compete at the Olympics and they too can have that dream.
“Not seeing someone in the Olympics, that might go by the wayside. But now they have us to look up to as role models and that younger generation can just feed off that and hopefully continue and make it in the next four years and make more strides.”
The 11th-ranked Canadians earned the spot in nerve-wracking fashion.
Facing 31st-ranked Croatia last Fridayshud be: last Friday, the team lost their scoring touch late in the game, losing 59-56 and setting up consecutive elimination games against 12th-ranked Argentina on Saturday and 15th-ranked Japan on Sunday.
After dispatching the South Americans 58-41, the Canadians started hot against Japan, sprinting to a 11-0 lead. They surrendered much of the margin by halftime before running up a 52-35 edge in the third. Japan rallied with a 14-2 run to make it a closer game in the fourth, but, this time, Canada’s resilience didn’t wane.
“We’re not the greatest-shooting team but we’re tough and we grind it out,” said Canadian team coach Allison McNeill. “We’re going to play these kind of games … we grind it out and we’re tough physically and pretty tough mentally and some nights we shoot better than others.”
McNeill said she was able to keep a lid on her emotions once the game ended but added it was only fitting her team clinched an Olympic berth on Canada Day.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “How cool is that?”
The Canadian team’s Olympics-clinching victory also was a fitting one for Theresa Gabrielle, a native of Mission, B.C., who added 11 points and five assists against Japan. The 32-year-old point guard is the only member of the current squad who played for Canada at Sydney in 2000.
She has spent the last 12 years trying to return to Olympic competition as a member of national squads that fell short of qualifying for Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
“It has been a long time, for sure,” she said. “To kind of maybe end my career at an Olympics is just an amazing experience.
“Words can’t really describe anything right now. We’re just all like kind of babbling right now and don’t know what to say. Our emotions are obviously flying high and we’re all just super excited. To do it on Canada Day is even better.”
McNeill said her team won’t head to London merely being happy to be there. She added the Canadians have the potential to be a handful at the London Games.
“Are we a favourite going in? Well, of course, we’re not a favourite going in,” she said. “But I think on any given night if we play well I think people will be concerned about having to play us.
“Yeah, we’re going to enjoy the Olympic experience but I think we’re definitely going there to try to do the best we can. I think we can make a little noise.”
The Czech Republic, Croatia, Turkey and France all locked up Olympic berths earlier in the tournament.
Canada will be in Group B in London with Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, France and Russia.
With a report from The Canadian Press