Canada’s women’s basketball was at ‘all-time high’ before COVID-19 crisis

Team Canada forward Kayla Alexander fights for rebounding position during a FIBA World Cup exhibition game in September 2018. (Photo: Chris Poss)

For many, the reality and severity of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came into crystal-clear view when the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season.

This was the case for Kayla Alexander, a member of Canada’s women’s national basketball team, who witnessed the end of the NBA season while in the midst of her own professional season across the Atlantic Ocean, playing for Polish club Arka Gdynia.

A few days after this bombshell announcement, like nearly every other pro sports league around the world, Alexander’s league shut down and she soon found herself on a plane homeward-bound.

Still in the midst of a 14-day self-isolation, Alexander is facing many of the same trials we all are during these strange times, including stressing to her parents the importance of staying inside at home.

“My parents are like, ‘We’re starting to feel like you don’t like us,’” Alexander said over the phone. “But I was like, ‘No, I’m just doing this for your safety because I was travelling and I don’t know if I came in contact with anybody that might’ve had it.’

“So, for their safety I just think it’s safer if I keep my distance from them.”

But as relatable as that story may be – especially to millennials who may be dealing with particularly socially-inclined parents – Alexander is still an elite-level athlete and that comes with its own set of complications.

Most notably, Alexander was slated to become an Olympian in the 2020 Tokyo Games. But with the announcement that the Games are being postponed to 2021, that massive moment in her and the rest of her teammates’ careers is being pushed back.

After grinding for years to reach this point, the 2020 Tokyo Games were going to finally be the big payoff.

“There’s certainly disappointment because on the sport level our team has come off of a really strong year,” said Lisa Thomaidis, Canada’s women’s basketball team head coach, over the phone. “We went undefeated in our qualification tournament, an all-time high of being ranked fourth in the world, playing some very, very good basketball at the time and were on a pretty solid trajectory heading into Tokyo, heading into the summer.

“So, there’s the reality of that that hits you, and then for our players to hear the news that it’s not gonna happen this summer and to eventually get the news that it’s gonna be postponed, I think our biggest messaging is we’re in a holding pattern right now.”

The frustration from Team Canada is understandable, but as Alexander put it, the mood of the team is a lot like everyone else’s right now.

“I think everybody right now is just wanting to do everything that we can so that we can, as a nation, get back to healthy so we can all get back to regular life,” Alexander said.

A simple concept. The sooner things get back to normal, the sooner Olympic dreams can be made reality.

Canada’s women’s basketball team was fortunate to punch its ticket to the Tokyo Games back in early February, something that will be honoured when the Games do finally play in 2021.

“There was definitely a sense of relief that it’s been determined that the athletes who have already qualified will be still qualified for 2021,” Thomaidis said.

But while this is great news for Canada’s women’s basketball team, the same can’t be said of the men’s team and many of Canada’s other athletes who still need to play Olympic qualifiers.

“Yes and no,” Alexander said when asked if she felt relief that her team’s qualification would be honoured. “‘Yes’ in the sense that we know that we’re in, and ‘no’ in the sense that my heart goes out to all of the other athletes who are like, ‘OK, what’s next for us now? How do we prepare?’ There’s just a lot of unknowns right now, so that makes it very difficult, I’m sure.”

Despite the empathy Alexander feels for her athlete peers, however, she still believes that the IOC’s decision was the right one as a matter of global public health certainly trumps an athletic competition – even one as large as the Olympics.

As such, Alexander was appreciative for the stance the Canadian Olympic Committee took, becoming the first national Olympic committee to publicly call for the postponement of the games.

“I applaud Canada for [making that statement] and thinking about the health of the athletes. Also, I think it took a lot of weight off of athletes who were stressing [about the situation],” Alexander said.

“It was the right decision,” Thomaidis added when asked about the COC’s statement. “Like a lot of athletes have expressed, it was a bit of a sense of pride that we were the first to take that stand. And, really, in the days leading up to that decision, it was becoming apparent that that was the only decision that was gonna be made with the spread of the virus really accelerating and taking hold. We really couldn’t see any other alternative.”

So while the Olympic journey of Canada’s women’s basketball team must be delayed once again, everyone on the team realizes that this is so much bigger than anything to with sports.

“We’re just gonna have to wait this out,” Thomaidis said. “This is a public health emergency now and for us, like everyone else, we’re gonna have to do our part and heed the advice of the experts and the professionals in the healthcare field and do whatever we can to help make sure we can get through this as quickly as possible.

“So that’s the biggest message right now: Take care of your health, yourself, and your family and friends.”

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