Every game is important in Canada’s quest for an Olympic women’s basketball medal in Tokyo.
That’s why Canadian star and globetrotter Kia Nurse was nonchalant about flying 26 hours to Edmonton for her team’s second round of Olympic qualifying this week. Or about dropping everything once again for the third and final qualifying round in February (location TBD).
"You get on an airplane. That’s what they’re made for," Nurse laughed.
"Going to the Olympics, every single game that we play, no matter who we’re playing against and when we’re playing, if we don’t get through this (qualifying round) then we don’t get a chance at the Olympics right?" the 23-year-old said from Edmonton on Tuesday. "So, it’s coming in every single day and making sure and understanding that every single game that we play has its own importance, not only in our development as a team moving forward, but to get ourselves to the Olympics and to the podium."
Canada tips off the tournament ranked an all-time high fourth in the world, and will field one of its strongest teams in history this week. The Canadians play Cuba on Thursday, Puerto Rico on Friday, and the Dominican Republic on Saturday, three countries they clobbered in the FIBA AmeriCup in September — without Nurse and Natalie Achonwa, who were wrapping up their WNBA seasons.
Nurse, who was a WNBA all-star in her second season with the New York Liberty, took a brief break to rehabilitate an elbow injury before flying to Canberra, the team she helped to an Australian league title last season. Nurse was named WNBL player of the week on Tuesday after leading the Capitals to a pair of wins on Thursday and Saturday in Melbourne. She then flew to Edmonton via Sydney and Vancouver.
Bridget Carleton similarly flew halfway around the world to suit up for Canada. The 21-year-old from Chatham, Ont., is playing for the WNBL’s Townsville Fire, and like Nurse, had only been Down Under for about a month before jetting back to North America.
"Jetlag brain is alive and well here in Edmonton," Carleton tweeted on Monday.
A large chunk of WNBA players spend their winters playing abroad. Because they’re paid peanuts compared to their NBA counterparts, it’s a financial necessity for most.
Carleton had a roller-coaster rookie season in the WNBA. The former Iowa State Cyclones star was drafted 21st by Connecticut then waived in early-July. She signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Lynx in late-August.
So the six-foot-one guard is appreciating the Aussie experience.
"Australia has been a great place to develop as a basketball player, it’s a good spot for me to be in, I have a good coach who’s willing to work with me on things I want to focus on, obviously I’m growing as a person, first time being really far away from my family and what I’m comfortable with in North America," Carleton said. "So yeah, in terms of just developing as a player and person for sure, I think I will be better because of the overseas experience for the national team and hopefully the WNBA."
Arriving in Edmonton in waves late last week from posts around the globe, the Canadian women will have had three days to practise before tipping off the tournament.
"What’s special about this group is we’re all committed to this program, coming back from all over the world to play for Canada … we all love to be a part of that," Carleton said. "We come from everywhere and then we get to reunite, it’s always fun to get on the court with these girls."
Picked from a Canada Basketball pool of the country’s top women, the majority have played together at various tournaments for years. So when they are reunited, they can slip almost seamlessly back into the Canadian team chemistry they’ve developed.
"We get a good understanding of playing with each other as we continue to do that year after year," Nurse said. "So when we come back and get back into the swing of things, it’s always really easy and really fun to be back playing with great players."
Canada must finish top two to earn a spot in one of the four global qualifying tournaments in February. The top three in each of those four tournaments earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.
The Canadian women were ousted in the quarterfinals of both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. The Canadian men missed a chance at qualifying for Tokyo at the World Cup in China in August. They’ll play in a last-chance qualifying tournament in June.