The games are about to begin, the team is together, and Kim Gaucher isn’t there.
That alone is a strange set of circumstances.
The senior women’s national team star has been playing basketball for her country almost every summer since she was barely old enough to drive a car, or more than two decades now.
She’s been a central figure as the senior team has transformed itself from an afterthought in international basketball into one of the elites, capable of competing for the biggest prizes on the grandest stage.
But as the women’s national team begins play at the AmeriCup in Puerto Rico on Saturday -- its first collective steps to what they hope will be a place on the podium at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo come August — Gaucher isn’t with them, and it feels strange.
“It’s always weird when Kim isn't there,” says head coach Lisa Thomaidis, who first got to know Smith in 2001 when she was a video assistant for former head coach Bev Smith, and the gifted teenager from Mission, B.C., was trying to crack the senior team for the first time. “There have not been many occasions when she hasn't been [with us] so it is going to be really odd without her."
The senior women, ranked fourth in the world heading to Tokyo, have a busy summer after not being together since winning their Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgium in February 2020.
They have been training in Tampa at the Toronto Raptors' facility since late May. The AmeriCup – which is part of the qualifying process for the 2022 World Cup – will serve as a benchmark for where the group is before heading to Japan in early July in advance of the Olympic tournament July 23-Aug. 8.
Gaucher was in camp in Tampa but didn’t travel to Puerto Rico, though with good reason. She and her husband Ben Gaucher had a daughter, Sophie, in March and the new Mom isn’t quite ready to compete internationally.
The target is to be ready to play in Tokyo for what will be her third Olympics and the best chance yet to help Canada win its first medal in basketball in 85 years. It’s been a journey, but even with the end in sight, the path remains uncertain.
Physically, she’s confident that she can pull it off.
“I'm like not really afraid of the work,’” says Gaucher, who had her number retired at the University of Utah and played three seasons in the WNBA before playing the rest of her career in Europe. “And like I feel like I've missed that, you know?
“So, I feel like everything has been coming back really quickly. I've talked to other athletes that have come back in this timeline and they've said every week you notice this huge improvement in your body, which is kind of wild because I really have felt that way.
“When I first started to run it was almost like you didn't remember how to run, because it had been so long, but it's been coming back to me quickly, so I mean I'm gonna give it my all.
“It’s the Olympics so you may as well go for it and see what happens.”
If only it were as simple as putting in the work and being ready to compete.
If everything goes perfectly and Gaucher can get fit enough to bring her ability to both score from deep and put the ball on the floor and make plays for others – not to mention a generation’s worth of cultural IQ — there will still be a heart-wrenching choice to be made.
Because of the pandemic, families aren’t going to be allowed to travel to Japan – not as spectators, caregivers or – in the case of Sophie – as a hungry bundle still being breast-fed by her Olympian Mom.
It leaves Gaucher facing a ‘lose-lose’ choice: if she decides to finish off her decorated basketball career by trying to win a medal – a seemingly impossible dream when she first started with the program when even qualifying for the Olympics was a mountain too high – it would mean being away from her newborn daughter for more than a month.
If she decides that she and Sophie can’t bear that kind of separation at this stage, it will mean missing out on a goal that has been nearly two decades in the making.
“That's a very real possibility, that I could go back, get back in shape, feel great [and decide not to go to Tokyo],” says Gaucher. “But yeah, I mean the decision sucks. I understand it's a pandemic but at the same time it’s 2021 and you're asking a mother to choose between feeding their child and competing.”
It wasn’t the plan. Gaucher had previously tried to time pregnancies for off-years in the Olympic cycle and the rest, but – quite literally – life happened.
“Turns out, you can’t plan these things,” she says.
— Kim Smith Gaucher (@8kimsmith) March 8, 2021
In addition to the joys of being a new parent, Gaucher even sees benefits athletically. Coming home to Sophie means never having a bad day and leaving practice in the gym.
“I think like your mentality changes, you know? I've always been my harshest critic and if you miss a few shots, it's very easy to get into your own head or to get down, and [being a parent] sort of opens your eyes," she says.
“Sophie doesn't really care if I had a bad practice or don't make my shots."
For the team, the AmeriCup is a trial run, of sorts – both for the team being without Gaucher and Gaucher being without them. She’s remaining in Tampa training at the Raptors' facility, living in a bubble with Ben and Sophie that includes the downtown hotel the team is staying at, the practice court in the ballroom of the hotel across the street and not much else.
As a new parent it’s been nice to have so many sets of long, strong arms to hand Sophie off to for a break here and there, but the benefits run both ways. Having Sophie around has become a welcome diversion from the monotony of practice, lifting, meals and film sessions that is the professional life -- the protocols required by the pandemic making the routine even more wrote.
“It's so, well, obviously it's adorable,” says Miranda Ayim, who has been to two Olympics with Gaucher and is hoping to make it three. “She [Sophie] is so cute. Sophie was leaving [practice] the other day and we took a family picture, if you will, and I've been able to hang out with her while she's been here … Sophie’s become our little mascot."
But seeing a veteran embrace the challenge of balancing family and career sends a message too. One of the keys of the women’s program’s growth has been having players like Gaucher, Ayim and Natalie Achonwa — and before them the likes of Shona Thorburn, Lizanne Murphy and Tamara Tatham, among others — commit to playing professionally for multiple Olympic cycles.
The result has been great depth, improved performance, and a culture of commitment and sacrifice that has become a standard for the next generation of players.
“I think [Gaucher] being here at training camp with a two-month-old was such a huge message,” says Thomaidis. “…You know, when you talk about what it takes to be a long-time pro and to be an Olympian and to be on the national team for such a long period of time, there's no greater example for our young players.
“I tell them ‘See her and how she does things, how she lives her life, how she prepares? Pay very close attention to her.’ It’s far better than me talking to them about it.”
Among the 20 women in camp are the next generation that Canada hopes will be the foundations for future success, among them Aaliyah Edwards, who just finished her first season at UConn but is still a teenager. Gaucher jokes that the 18-year age difference between her and Edwards is the same as the gap between Edwards and Sophie.
When Edwards first joined the national team the joke was Gaucher could be her mom — now it’s that Sophie and Edwards could be teammate one day.
Regardless, an impression has been made.
“To have her actually have a kid and to actually be a mom is kind of funny,” says Edwards. “But I'm just proud of what [Gaucher] is doing. It also shows a lot for girls around the world that they can do this and it's possible and not letting anybody tell them that they can't.”
Well, except for the International Olympic Committee, that is.
How long Gaucher and her daughter will be around the team is the looming question. She’s still holding out hope that an exemption or an exception can be found, and Sophie will be able to come to Tokyo, but the IOC isn’t known for making athlete-friendly breaks with protocol – pandemic or not.
“I've been trying to reach out to different athletes who are going through this and there's some that are petitioning the IOC and so I guess just I'm trying to explore all of my options and see if there is any outside sliver of chance [for an exemption],” says Gaucher.
“And when all that gets shut down, then I guess at that point in time, I'll have to really sit down and make a decision. It would be very hard, you know, with her being so young. I think if she was older -- not that it would be easy -- but it would be easier in a way."
At which point her voice trails off a bit, as one of the greatest players Canada has ever produced contemplates choosing between her longest loves – basketball and country -- and her newest, deepest one.
“Yeah,” she says. “It's definitely a very difficult decision.”