Looking out the windows of their hotel in Tampa, the Canadian women’s basketball team can see a city moving on from the pandemic – people gathering after Tampa Bay Lightning playoff games, congregating poolside or enjoying live music on a roof-top patio.
The women admit it can be refreshing to watch this return to normalcy – especially for those players who have been living with stringent COVID-19 restrictions in Canada or Europe. Yet the Canadian women are happy to remain inside their team bubble and stay focused on the goal at hand: winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Because of the pandemic, the team hadn’t gathered in 15 months. Canada’s current 14-day quarantine protocols after travel complicated the original plan to train at their home base in Edmonton. So the Toronto Raptors gave the women access to their temporary practice facility in Tampa – part of a relationship with Canada Basketball to expand the game.
The women arrived last week – the start of an uninterrupted 10-week journey together before they tip off in Tokyo against Serbia on July 26. After a three-day self-imposed quarantine inside their hotel rooms, they opened camp in the state-of-the-art training hub that the Raptors created inside a huge Tampa hotel ballroom after they were forced to play this past NBA season outside Canada.
The Canadian women are bubbled at an adjacent hotel, where they are tested daily at 7 a.m. They walk across to the Raptors’ facility, which includes a weight room, spaces for meeting and treatment, and two full-sized basketball courts with a shimmering ballroom chandelier hanging overhead.
The Raptors players are not in Tampa right now because their NBA season is over, but some staff will use it as a home base through the off-season, including possible workouts with prospects before the July 29 NBA Draft. (It remains unclear whether the Raptors can open next season in Toronto, though the team remains optimistic.) Much of their signage remains, and now Canada Basketball’s is alongside it. The women have exclusive access until they leave to play in the FIBA AmeriCup – June 11 to 19 in San Juan. They’ll return to Tampa for another training stint after.
“If we had to pivot away from our original plan, this was a pretty sweet pivot,” said Canadian women’s Olympic coach Lisa Thomaidis. “It feels really special when you’re preparing for the Olympics to have the best setup that you can possibly imagine leading into it. The athletes feel like they’re being treated pretty amazing.”
Most of the 20-player extended squad is in Tampa. Notable absences include Nirra Fields (who is playing for a championship in Turkey) and Canada’s three WNBA players – Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa – who will remain with their teams until the WNBA Olympic break starts in mid-July.
In Tampa, everything the women could need for a physically distanced hub was already in place, right down to the spacing of tables inside the Raptors’ dining room. Keeping COVID-19 out is a top priority. They have their own floor in the hotel and only go outside for short walks.
“We just can’t risk it, so close to the Olympics,” Thomaidis said. “One COVID case could rip through the team and jeopardize our chances of doing what we’ve worked so hard to accomplish in Tokyo. We have our eyes on the prize.”
Every player is rooming alone instead of with a teammate as in past years, and they can’t hang out in one another’s rooms. They wear masks when moving through the hotel, even though most other hotel guests aren’t. The team got vaccinated when they arrived and will get their second dose before going to Japan.
Canada has never won an Olympic medal in women’s basketball. The women have qualified for three consecutive Olympics, dating to London in 2012. They won a Pan Am Games gold medal in 2015, skyrocketed to a program-high FIBA world ranking of No. 4 and cruised through their Olympic qualifier 3-0 in February of last year to book a ticket to Tokyo.
Since then, Canada’s players have scattered around the world, playing for teams in the WNBA, NCAA or Europe. They couldn’t train together in Canada during the pandemic, but met regularly online, including a full week-long virtual camp last summer. Losing to France in the 2016 Olympic quarter-finals – finishing seventh – left Canada hungry for a better result.
“In London 2012 I think we were just excited to qualify for the Olympics after such a long time, then we had higher expectations for 2016 in Rio and I think we would say that we fell short,” said long-time forward Miranda Ayim of London, Ont. “Right now, we feel like we’re poised for something great. We have great talent – both veterans and young people.”
In addition to their physical workouts, the team also has a “Thought Lab” at the facility in Tampa, where they train their minds with mental-performance skills coach Bryce Tully. That sometimes includes playing a type of video game while connected to neuro biofeedback so the athletes can see analysis of their physical reactions and practise regulating their emotions during intense situations.
This could be an exhilarating summer for Canadian basketball.
While the women’s team is in Puerto Rico, Canada’s men’s team will train in Tampa. The squad of mostly NBA invitees hopes to book Canada’s first Olympic appearance since 2000 at the qualifying tournament in Victoria from June 29 to July 4, led by Raptors coach Nick Nurse. Canada’s men must win the six-team tournament in Victoria to clinch their first Olympic berth since 2000. In nine Olympic appearances Canadian men have one basketball medal: a silver in 1936.
A new and totally separate basketball event will also make its Olympic debut – 3x3. Canadian women didn’t qualify for Tokyo in 3x3, but Canadian men still could if they earn a spot via this weekend’s qualifier in Graz, Austria. Canada improved to 2-0 at the tournament after beating the Netherlands 17-15 on Friday.
After the women leave Tampa in early July, they will stage a final camp in Kariya City, Japan. Canada’s 14-day travel quarantine would cost them too many lost training days, so they won’t return home before the Olympics. Edmonton has been the team’s home since 2013 and will remain their home in the future.
“The only thing that’s really missing here is the city of Edmonton and us being able to be in Canada to have an amazing sendoff for this amazing team,” said Denise Dignard, Canada Basketball’s vice-president of women’s high performance.
Ayim, 37, has played 180 games for Canada since her junior national team debut in 2005. She’s fresh off a French league championship with Basket Landes, and now the Pepperdine grad and one-time WNBA player aims to close out her basketball career with an Olympic medal.
“There’s a level of excellence that is expected from everyone here,” Ayim said. “We don’t let things slide, we hold each other accountable, but we also have a lot of fun.
“We recognize this has been a hard year for people, and we’re hoping to bring some joy to Canadians back home when they’re watching us play. We want to make them proud.”