'Dynamic, relentless, together': Canadian women take aim at Olympic basketball podium

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Canada's Kia Nurse, right, will take on more of a leadership role during her second Olympic appearance as the team prepares to head to Tokyo 2020. (Vianney Thibaut/Canada Basketball - image credit)
Canada's Kia Nurse, right, will take on more of a leadership role during her second Olympic appearance as the team prepares to head to Tokyo 2020. (Vianney Thibaut/Canada Basketball - image credit)

The time is now for the Canadian women's basketball team to reach the podium.

The 2012 London Olympics were a pleasant surprise, a team that made a nice run to the quarter-finals. The 2016 Rio Games saw another quarter-final exit, this time a hard-fought loss to France.

But a third straight quarter-final loss at Tokyo 2020 could only be viewed as a disappointment for a team ranked fourth by FIBA, boasting three WNBA players and regarded as one of the top basketball nations in the world.

Miranda Ayim, the 33-year-old forward from London, Ont., is one of three players remaining from the 2012 team.

"[The podium] has been the objective all along. We went into 2016 wanting to do the same thing and now we're in a place where we're expected to do that," Ayim said.

Canada has not won an Olympic basketball medal since the men took silver in 1936 in Nazi Germany.

WATCH | Olympic roster unveiled:

Ayim previously announced she would retire following the Olympics.

At full strength, head coach Lisa Thomaidis, who has helmed the national program since 2013, said the team identity is "dynamic, relentless and together."

Slowly, the team has evolved from one that relies on post scoring and defence to a group that plays with speed and athleticism to overwhelm its opponents.

"The players that we have amassed will certainly exude that team identity in terms of what we're going for. Our team vision is to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics and so we're firmly grounded in that vision," Thomaidis said.

Also set to compete at their third Olympics are Kim Gaucher, who was recently cleared to bring three-month-old daughter Sophie despite the ban on friends and family, and Natalia Achonwa, a WNBAer currently dealing with a sprained MCL in her right knee.

Thomaidis said she expects Achonwa to be ready for Tokyo.

"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 I think, but knowing Nat, she's such a competitor. ... So we're confident she's going to be ready," Thomaidis said.

Faster style

Along with Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton will join the team when the WNBA pauses for its Olympic break on July 12.

Both guards exhibit the new Canadian style of play, with tough defence complemented by strong perimeter shooting.

"Basketball is basketball and not a lot of things change no matter what system you're in. There's probably a few habits here or there in terms of defensive or offensive execution that we might have to change going back into the national team setting," Nurse said.

"You gotta dribble, pass and shoot. It's not that hard."

Ayim said the latest philosophy is similar to the previous in the sense that defence will dictate Canada's fate.

"It's an exciting way to bring some of that solid Canadian defence that we've always hung our hat on and integrating it with this new exciting offensive attack as well which is just a perfect storm," Ayim said.

Nurse taking on more responsibility

Entering her second Olympics, Nurse is expected to take on more of a leadership role than in Rio, when she was still playing NCAA basketball for UConn.

Gaucher, 37, cited Nurse, 25, and Achonwa, 28, as part of the inner leadership circle.

"In Rio I could take a backseat and listen to those who had been there before me and now I'm going to kind of have to help out with some of the younger kids in that sense as well," Nurse said.

Of the 12 women named to the roster, six are set to make their Olympic debuts. Forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and guard Nirra Fields debuted next to Nurse in Brazil.

Meanwhile, three college players — forwards Laeticia Amihere and Aaliyah Edwards, guard Shaina Pellington — are headed to Japan.

WATCH | Gaucher, Bujold win cases to to pave path to Olympics:

The mixture of youth and experience, combined with players in their prime such as Nurse and Carleton, should only help Canada's podium pursuit.

"We've got speed, we've got intelligence, we've got an ability to score from a number of different positions, so it makes us more dangerous, more difficult for teams to defend. I'm excited for what this team can do," Nurse said.

Rounding out the team are guard Shay Colley and forward Kayla Alexander.

Throughout Thomaidis' time on the bench, the Canadian women's basketball team has evolved to the point where it's expected to win a medal.

Stuck in a deep pool in Tokyo – having to face No. 3 Spain, No. 8 Serbia and No. 19 Korea in group play – Thomaidis said she counts as many as 10 of the 12 Olympic teams as podium contenders.

But Canada is no longer just happy to be there.

"Now you kinda change your goals a little bit and say let's get on the podium because I think we're good enough to do that as well," Nurse said.

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