"Resilient spirit" among Canada's women's basketball players amid pandemic

·5 min read

Living within the strict boundaries of the WNBA bubble in Florida took a toll on Natalie Achonwa's mental and emotional well-being.

But in some ways, being forced to face the threats of COVID-19 after leaving the safety net of the "wubble" was even tougher. 

The 27-year-old from Guelph, Ont., had planned on taking some time off after the WNBA wrapped up a few weeks ago, but is playing in Schio, Italy, a country in the grip of a second wave of the global pandemic.

"The WNBA bubble was really hard for me," Achonwa said. "When you're there, you feel stuck, trapped, like you can't go anywhere. 

"But then leaving, I had quite the opposite feeling of leaving this area that was protected, the safety of being around people who were tested every day were confined to the same space. So, leaving took quite a toll."

Achonwa, who's playing in Italy's Serie A1 league, initially planned to join a team in Europe in January after taking a break, but like the majority of her Canadian teammates who are stationed in basketball outposts around Europe, the Indiana Fever forward figured she'd better grab the opportunity while it was there. 

"With COVID, I honestly wasn't sure if we would have leagues come January, or what it would look like, if there was even going to be an opportunity," she said. "I'm basically a seasonal employee, I get paid for a certain amount of months in the WNBA season, and outside of that, still have to pay bills, I still need to work. And I was afraid that if I waited too long that I might not have the opportunity to play."

Ruth Hamblin, a six-foot-six centre from Houston, B.C., is playing for Politechnika Gdanska in Poland, the fifth country she's called a basketball home. The COVID threat hit way too close for comfort a few weeks ago when eight of her teammates tested positive, sending the team into quarantine.

"We were slowly seeing the test results come back, and it was: positive, positive, positive. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we all have COVID at this point,'" Hamblin said. "That was really nerve-wracking, but then I got my negative result and did a little happy dance."

Hamblin cherished the summer spent with family, saying it "refuelled my soul." She considered sitting out the winter season, but said the goal is to be at her best at the Tokyo Olympics. Canada already clinched an Olympic berth.

"It's a whole extra year to get better. The Olympics (without the pandemic) would have happened already, and I'm (still) growing and expanding my games in different ways. I get to be that much better in 2021 when it comes."

Aislinn Konig is a big planner. She likes to set her goals and schedule a couple of months in advance. But COVID-19 upended everything in her pivotal senior season at NC State. The Wolfpack had just won the ACC Tournament. Konig had been named tournament MVP. NC State would have been either a No. 1 or 2 seed at the NCAA championships. 

But the NCAA championships were among the global sports events erased in the early days of the pandemic.  

"It's the best way we could have ended it in the circumstances," she said. 

The Surrey, B.C., native then went undrafted by the WNBA. She's playing with Elfic Fribourg in the Swiss league.

"Before I got to Switzerland and signed my contract, there were definitely some stressful nights where there wasn't a whole lot of sleep," she said. "And really good conversations with the people around me, trying to calm me down a little bit."

Despite spending the last week in quarantine in her studio apartment after a couple of positive tests on her team, she doesn't view the experience as negative.

"I read a really awesome quote a couple of days ago, it went 'Some mistakes take us to the places we were always meant to be,'" she said. "I really like that. 

"Even though I didn't have the same control I'd like to and the same foresight, I feel like I'm in a really great position right now with where I'm playing, the league is continuing despite the issues that they've been having. And, I'm just surrounded by great people. 

"I wouldn't say it's a silver lining, but I think learning to appreciate the things that are still happening for us was something that was really important for me."

Konig, who follows a plant-based diet, has been spending any down time writing a how-to book for college athletes who are vegetarian or vegan. She's also working with her dad on his start-up Internet security business.

International leagues are on pause for a two-week FIBA break. Canada, which has booked its berth for the Tokyo Olympics, isn't gathering for the break due to widespread travel restrictions. The Canadian players attend regular Zoom meetings though.

Hamblin believes history will show the Canadian women, ranked No. 4 globally, came through these unprecedented months that much stronger for the experience. 

"The way I've seen so many Canadian athletes, including our team, the way we've come together and have resolved to not let this change our momentum, I think there's just a really resilient spirit behind it," she said. 

"It's going to be really cool come 2021 in Tokyo, just to see the fruition of that, because it's been just these crazy, unparalleled circumstances, and we're all going to come out conquerers of it at the end." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press