Canada's finest women's basketball players gathered for a national team camp back in February. They discussed strategy. They pored over game film. They did team bonding exercises.
But a full year after they'd clinched their Tokyo Olympic berth, the players were scattered across the globe. Their camp was virtual due to COVID-19. There were no drills against the soundtrack of squeaking sneakers and hollered directions, only players' faces laid out like a checkerboard across their computer screens.
Canada's women's basketball team went 16 months without stepping onto the floor together, but the players never lost sight of their shared goal: climbing the medal podium in Tokyo. They held onto hope that the bonds built over the years together would be enough to bridge the kilometres between them.
"What hasn't (COVID-19) impacted over the past 16 months for us?" coach Lisa Thomaidis said recently. "It's been unbelievably challenging, I guess you could say, when you're trying to prepare a team for an Olympic Games, and you can't be together up until essentially the 11th hour.
"We're very fortunate we have a group of athletes and staff that have been together for a number of years now . . . we do have that familiarity with one another. And I think that's going to be really important considering we haven't had a ton of time leading up to this."
The Canadians — with players spread across international pro leagues and with strict COVID-19 protocols in place at home — were one of the few teams unable to actually hold camp until a few weeks before travelling to Tokyo. The U.S. and other countries with domestic pro leagues had been gathering in person months earlier.
"We didn't get the opportunity to actually compete and train together because of COVID and all the restrictions, so a lot of us had to do things either from home or with our respective teams overseas," said forward Kayla Alexander, who's making her Olympic debut at age 30. "I think 'challenging' is a good word, but also, we found ways to get it done."
Canada is ranked No. 4 in the world and takes arguably its most talented team in history to Tokyo: a mix of established veterans such as three-time Olympians Natalie Achonwa, Kim Gaucher and Miranda Ayim, and young stars such as Laeticia Amihere, Aaliyah Edwards and Shaina Pellington.
"Our team identity is: dynamic, relentless, and together," Thomaidis said. "That's the team that I expect is going to show up, that's how you can expect us to play, and, the players that we've amassed will certainly exude that team identity. And again, our team vision is to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. And so, we're firmly grounded in that vision."
Canada was eliminated in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a 68-63 loss to France. The Canadians had a nine-point lead to end the first quarter, but were outscored the rest of the way. Phoenix Mercury guard Kia Nurse, who shot 3-for-17 that day, said the loss still stings.
"For me personally, that was a really hard game to look back at," said Nurse. "I'm a different person and a different player than I was five years ago. But at the same time, it's still a piece of motivation, every time that I put that Canadian jersey on, just because I know we had an opportunity to do something special there and we fell short.
"It wasn't because of lack of effort or lack of focus — we just lost the game. And that happens. It's unfortunate in our sport, though, sometimes when you lose one you're out. But I definitely use that as motivation, because this is another team that's extremely special and has the opportunity to bring home a medal and make history for our national team."
It's been a long five years to make up for that loss.
"It's different. WNBA you play one game, you lose it and you go play another game two days later. This one's five years apart," said Nurse.
The 25-year-old is one three WNBA players on Canada's team. Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, both of the Minnesota Lynx, are the other two. The Olympics will be their first national team action since the qualifying in early 2020.
Canada opens the 12-team Olympic tournament on July 26 versus No. 8 Serbia. They face 19th-ranked South Korea on July 29th, then battle third-ranked Spain on Aug. 1. All games are at the Saitama Super Arena.
The Canadians, who also lost in the quarterfinals in 2012, have long been known for their smothering defence, but have injected some speed and athleticism to this squad with players like Amihere and Pellington.
Amihere, who at the age of 15 became the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game, was spectacular in Canada's AmeriCup appearance last month, leading the team in scoring (13.0), rebounding (7.7) and shooting percentage (50.0).
Thomaidis is excited to see what the six-foot-four Amihere, who turned 20 earlier this month, will do on sport's biggest stage.
"(She's) fearless," Thomaidis said. "And she's so young and certainly doesn't play like she's a young one."
This is the third consecutive Olympics that Canada's women's team will play without their male counterparts. The men's team, despite being stocked with eight NBA players, failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games, shocked by the Czech Republic in the semifinals of a last-chance qualifier on home soil in Victoria.
While the Canadian women have made a habit of qualifying for big events, Nurse said it's time for the team to take that next step.
"We're now fourth in the world. You start to think, 'OK, well, we've qualified for the last three Olympics, we qualified for world championships ... now you change your goals a little bit, and you say, 'OK, let's get on the podium,'" she said.
"We are a high level team. We play basketball at a really high rate."
Since COVID-19 restrictions meant they couldn't hold camp in Edmonton, their home base for nearly a decade, the rest of the Canadian team gathered in Tampa, Fla., in May, training out of the Toronto Raptors' temporary facility there. It was the beginning of a huge three-month commitment by the players, who, after checking into the pre-Olympic training bubble, weren't permitted to travel home to see family, or host family in Florida.
The one exception was Kim Gaucher, who lobbied the International Olympic Committee to bring her baby daughter Sophie to the Games so she could continue breastfeeding. The 37-year-old won that battle.
Her veteran leadership will be crucial in Tokyo.
"Obviously, Kim has given the national team her blood, sweat and tears for a number of years now," Nurse said. "We're a better team (with Gaucher) because of what she does on the court, but also because of her leadership and her experience, and her ability to help us with her words.
"She's an absolutely amazing person to sit with us and have conversations to help us become better in any way possible. She was already a superhero in my eyes. But now as a working mom, she's even more (of one)."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.