As Canada’s basketball women got their first glimpse of the Olympic court on Wednesday, they instinctively threw their arms in the air and sang out in reverence, as if they were laying eyes on a famous basilica or the view from a mountaintop.
“The guy opened the door for us, and the players walked in and sang out “Ah-aaaaw”,” said head coach Allison McNeill, mimicking their fun-natured, high-pitched bellow. “That’s them, they are very loose. It was very funny and spontaneous. And then we had a really terrific, business-like practice.”
It was the first training session in the main venue for the women, their first glimpse at the Olympic hardwood. Canada has a women’s basketball team in the Olympics for the first time since the 2000 Games in Sydney. This squad has only one remaining member of the team that finished 10th in Sydney – 32-year-old Teresa Gabriele.
They are first-time Olympians, full of the excitement that comes from seeing the Athletes’ Village and a city bedecked in Olympic pageantry. But this team is quick to say the excitement should not be mistaken for inexperience or immaturity. They aren’t intimidated by talk of the powerful Russians, who have been practising in solitude, or the Americans, who some predict could be the one of the best female basketball teams ever assembled.
“We have talked about this for four years, so we don’t feel like beginners here” McNeill said. “Maybe we should, but we don’t feel like we’ve never been before. There are world-class athletes here, and so are we. We earned it, and we belong.”
They have gone from a little-known team to one showered with attention after beating Japan 71-63 to earn the final Olympic berth at the qualifying tournament in Turkey on July 1. They were given practice time at the Toronto Raptors’ facility at the Air Canada Centre before leaving Canada. They were thrown a big farewell party at a Toronto restaurant. The pilot even congratulated them over the speaker on their flight to London last Friday.
The team has moved into two eight-person town homes in the Athlete’s Village. They even had Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic over on Tuesday night to watch the Spanish Olympic team play Team USA on television.
“I never imagined the dining hall would be so big,” said 11-year of Canada’s team, Kim Smith after Wednesday’s practice. “But it doesn’t feel like anything more than another tournament. Other than the way nicer places to stay and way nicer food. But believe it or not, we are good at taking this in stride, making this seem normal.”
Many of the players, including veterans like Smith, were fuelled by the disappointment of failing to qualify for the last two Olympics. Smith and long-time teammate Shona Thorburn got Canadian maple-leaf tattoos back in 2004, believing they would play in the 2004 Games and could then add Olympic rings to the tattoo. Now they finally can.
“Some people around the world are a little surprised we are going,” said Thorburn at the farewell party. “Last summer, we thought we could make it, but we fell short. This summer, when we got back together, it was different. It was a very strong, unspoken belief that’s hard to describe.”
Although Canada’s first game is 11:15 a.m. London time on Saturday morning versus powerhouse Russia, it plans to walk in the opening ceremony Friday night but leave a little early.
“It was an easy decision. It’s one of those moments that everyone dreams of, and I didn’t want them to work and wait this long and not experience the opening ceremony,” McNeill said. “Yes, it’s been 12 years since Canadian women were here playing basketball, but we’re not going to put blinders on. We can play our best basketball and enjoy it. We’ll do both.”