By: Holly MacKenzie

OSTEND, Belgium (February 3, 2020) - The Senior Women’s National Team is ready to hit the court in Belgium. 

Team Canada is in Ostend, Belgium this week for a FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament where they will play three games (Feb. 6 - Feb. 9), with the team looking to advance to a third consecutive Olympic Games. With a full roster on hand and players arriving from near and far to suit up for Canada, the team is excited to get things underway.

“With the Belgium qualifier for us, it’s really becoming real,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis said.  “Anytime we get a chance to get our whole team together and get a glimpse of what is possible, the level of play we’re going to be able to put on the floor, that part is really fun. Our players really look forward to getting back together and just seeing what we can do out there. They love hanging out and reconvening and reconnecting after time spent away. It’s going to be fun.”

Much of the team’s roster is scattered across the globe playing professionally.  Players have traveled to Belgium from Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Russia, among other places, for the chance to represent Canada in this tournament and hopefully secure a spot in Tokyo this summer.

“It’s a long journey for sure,” Thomaidis said. “I can’t wait to get back out there and show what we have and express the strength that we do have on this team.”

Long travel days couldn’t dampen the spirits of players eager to get back together with the rest of their squad. Despite having to rearrange schedules and fit the tournament into their calendars, the mood was a celebratory one when everyone arrived in Belgium.

“It’s kind of funny, because when we first got here, people were getting here in groups, we weren’t all arriving at the same time, and it was like a family reunion,” Kayla Alexander said.  “You’re all excited, you all jump up, give hugs and then you catch up. And we pick right back up where we left off. It’s great.”

Alexander says that camaraderie is part of what makes playing for the program so special. 

“Everyone is a great teammate,” Alexander said. “It makes you want to run through a brick wall for each other. It makes the chemistry undeniable and it makes basketball so much fun. We really enjoy each other’s company, we laugh together, we compete hard and take it to each other in practice, but after that it’s like where are we going to eat now, where are we hanging out now? It feels like a family. A big, Canadian family.”

This is the first competition for Team Canada since a first-place finish and 3-0 record at the FIBA Women’s Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament in Edmonton in November 2019. Canada will face host team Belgium (Feb. 6, 2:35 PM ET), as well as Sweden (Feb. 8, 2:35 PM ET) and Japan (Feb. 9, 12:05 PM ET) in the tournament. The two highest-placed teams, as well as Japan, as host of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, will qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Women’s Olympic Basketball Tournament.

CBC Sports will broadcast all three of Canada’s games and have pre-game, halftime and post-game shows hosted by Andi Petrillo, featuring analysis from two-time Canadian Olympic national team player Lizanne Murphy and former national team player/coach and Women's Basketball Hall of Fame member Bev Smith.

Fans can also catch the action streaming live in Canada on DAZN and the CBC Gem app.

“It’s a super exciting time,” Thomaidis said. “Always after an Olympics, you look ahead and think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s going to be another four years before we’ll have the opportunity to compete again,’ but then the next thing you know, you wake up and you say, ‘Holy cow, we’re only a few months away now, boy those last three years really flew by.’ I think there’s a ton of excitement, it’s definitely growing by the day.”

Thomaidis started with the program as an assistant coach in 2002, then took over the helm in 2013. Under her guidance, the success of the team has continued to rise. Canada comes to Belgium ranked a program-best 4th worldwide in the FIBA World Ranking Presented by Nike. 

What stands out to her about the women she’s coaching is the dedication that they have to the game they love.

“The immense amount of time that they have all put into their craft to get this team to where it is now,” Thomaidis said. “Having to do it, for many of them, out of the media spotlight. They’re doing it in Europe, they’re doing it away from family and friends.  They’re putting a lot of things in their life on hold to be able to chase after this dream. The level of commitment and dedication to make this happen, the amazing characters that these women are. There’s so much more to them than just basketball players, which is cool, too. They’re very special, talented people.”

One thing that’s immediately clear when speaking to any of the members of the team is the welcomed responsibility that players feel to be positive role models for the young women who might be watching them. 

“It’s really special,” Thomaidis said. “They do have that appreciation for something much bigger than just playing the game. It’s providing that vision and that role modelling. Inspiring the next generation, I think it really encapsulates what we’re doing as female athletes and teams. It’s about inspiring that next generation to have better opportunities and to continue to grow the game and play at a higher level than we are right now.”

While Thomaidis wanted to shine a light on her players, Alexander was sure to mention her appreciation to everyone involved with the program, past and present.

“This [program success] doesn’t happen overnight,” Alexander said. “There’s so many other women who have come before us, who sacrificed, who put in the time, who helped to get the program where it is today. It doesn’t start with us. It’s a collective. It’s not just the players, it’s the coaching staff, the medical staff, our psychologists, it’s everybody who helps to make this program what it is.”

This week in Belgium is especially exciting for Alexander. This will be the first competition she’s had since suffering a knee injury during the FIBA Women's AmeriCup 2019 semifinals against Brazil. Canada went on to finish second in the AmeriCup, after falling to the United States in the final.

“Physically I’m feeling good,” Alexander said. “Feeling strong every day. I’m excited. I know my teammates are excited. We’ve all been putting in the work and we’re looking forward to this moment and we’re looking forward to [being] in Belgium and competing against three very talented teams.”

Even going through practice sessions with her teammates has been fun for Alexander.

“The competition has been unreal in practices,” she said. “I’ve been loving that.”

In her second year with the Senior Women’s National Team program, Alexander doesn’t take the opportunity for granted.

“I hope people realize the team is full of incredibly talented young ladies,” she said. “Everybody on this team gives it their all. They sacrifice so much. Whether it’s time away from family, going overseas because you want to compete, we want to continue to improve and do our best so that when we come back and compete for our country we can be at our best. Everybody is just thankful. I think everybody has that gratitude and thankfulness to compete for our country. 

“We’re going to give it our all, leave it all on the court,” she continued. “I hope the people know how much we enjoy it. We love what we do.”