Loyalty to Canada’s women’s basketball program is a part of the fibre of virtually every player. Pride in pulling on the red and white jersey is deep-rooted.
“That loyalty is ingrained in who we are, and from a young age,” Natalie Achonwa said. “For me, it’s been since I was 16.”
So there was zero chance the Indiana Fever forward, who became the youngest person to play for the national team at 16, was passing up playing for Canada in its second round of Olympic qualifying this week in Edmonton.
“We literally have players coming from all over the world – Australia, Russia, France, all over the U.S … We believe it’s truly an honour to put on the Canadian jersey and be able to represent our country in a way that we can, and today, given it’s Remembrance Day, the sacrifice that others have given for us to have this opportunity makes it that much more special.
“We know it’s an honour to be able to be here and compete. When duty calls, we make sure that we answer it.”
The social-media accounts of the Canadian women have read like long-distance travel logs the past few days. They’ve posted photos from airplane windows about to take off for home – including Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton, who both arrived in Edmonton from Australia. Miranda Ayim and Kim Gaucher arrived from France. Ruth Hamblin, Miah-Marie Langlois, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Jamie Scott flew in from Russia. Quinn Dornstauder travelled from Spain.
“It’s been amazing,” said head coach Lisa Thomaidis, who’s assembled arguably the strongest team in Canadian history. “They’re so passionate about playing for their country. It’s really awesome to see them leaving their [pro or college] teams and coming from all over the world.
“The really cool part is that for most of them, we were just playing in September, so it hasn’t been the typical eight months that we’ve been apart. So it’s coming back together like, ‘Okay, we’ve been away for five weeks and now we pick up where we left off and then add in a few new pieces who weren’t here in September, and see where we can get to.’ ”
The tournament comes after a busy few weeks for Achonwa. The 26-year-old was in South Bend, Ind., on Friday night as the sixth player to be inducted into the Notre Dame women’s ring of honour.
“She was a great leader on and off the court, and one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached – just a highly intelligent player with great vision,” Notre Dame’s head coach Muffet McGraw said.
The two-time Olympian led the Irish to four consecutive Final Fours, including three NCAA championship games.
“I was shocked,” the Guelph, Ont., native said.
A group of some 20 friends and family members drove to South Bend for the ceremony. There was a large contingent of Fever staff there as well.
“So I had people from all over, different steps of my journey there, and there’s really no words to describe how it felt when the jersey dropped, to see my name and my number up there,” Achonwa said.
Achonwa co-holds the school record for double-doubles in a single season (19 in 2012-13). She still ranks among the Irish leaders in career shooting percentage (.562), career rebounds (970), games played (145) and career double-doubles (28).
The 6-foot-3 player said she’s proud to be recognized for her versatility.
“If you look at the five other players that are up there, they were all-time scorers, all-time leaders, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a part of that group,” she said from Edmonton on Monday. “And so it really was special to me because I was able to do it my way. I was able to show you could still be a role player, still be a team player and still make an impact, and I think that’s what made it so special for me.”
Last month, the Canadian won the WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for her commitment to giving back to the community. Achonwa was heavily involved in mental-health, anti-bullying and suicide-prevention initiatives, and plus programs around education and literacy among youth, and empowering women.
Achonwa said her platform as a high-profile athlete is “a gift.”
“And an opportunity that I don’t take lightly,” she said. “Any way I can positively interact with the next generation, whether it’s through basketball or not, that’s always been a piece of my ‘why.’
“I always say, ‘To whom much is given, much will required [Luke 12:48],’ so if I was given these gifts for a reason, I have to use them.”
Canada, which was recently ranked an all-time fourth in the world, takes on Cuba on Thursday, Puerto Rico on Friday and the Dominican Republic on Saturday.
Canada must finish top two to earn a spot in one of the four global qualifying tournaments in February. The top three in each of those four tournaments earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.