Canada's women's basketball team approaching Olympic qualifier with level of naiveté

Canada's Natalie Achonwa, right, seen above in September 2022, said she's embracing the lightness of the younger players on the national basketball team ahead of its Olympic qualifier in Sopron, Hungary. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images - image credit)
Canada's Natalie Achonwa, right, seen above in September 2022, said she's embracing the lightness of the younger players on the national basketball team ahead of its Olympic qualifier in Sopron, Hungary. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images - image credit)

They've appeared in travel vlogs, and they've learned that you'd better do something interesting in the first three seconds of a TikTok video, or else no one will watch.

As the Canadian women's basketball team settles in Sopron, Hungary, for its Olympic qualifying tournament, its veterans are leaning on the younger players as much as the opposite is true.

"[Head coach] Victor [Lapeña] said something that I really took to heart the other day," three-time Olympian Natalie Achonwa said.

"He mentioned that sometimes the naive approach of having someone like Syla [Swords], who's a high school student that hasn't been in any of these pressure situations, adds a little bit of lightness and fun to the group."

It is Swords who has documented the team's travels, including its recent one-hour bus ride from training camp in Vienna to Sopron where players were surprised with new headphones.

But while her new toy remains in its box, the 18-year-old may be subject to the music stylings of the 31-year-old mom Achonwa.

"We each bring something different," Nirra Fields, the 30-year-old two-time Olympian, said. "Whether it be off the court where I'm with Syla and Yvonne [Ejim] and they're into the TikTok world, knowing more about that and seeing how they interact with TikTok and social media is super interesting. Or with Natalie and she's like old school R&B, hip hop, the music we play and stuff like that."

Canada, ranked fifth worldwide by FIBA, faces a pressure-packed weekend in which three games will determine its Olympic fate. They'll face No. 19 Hungary, No. 4 Spain and No. 9 Japan in that order over Thursday (1 p.m. ET), Friday (9:30 a.m. ET) and Sunday (9 a.m. ET), with the top three teams of the round robin booking their ticket to Paris.

WATCH | Achonwa, Fields, Lapeña discuss Olympic qualifier:

Leaning on depth, versatility

The full 12-person roster was announced on Tuesday, with Kia Nurse a notable omission due to a minor injury suffered in training camp. Nurse will still be present on the sidelines at the games throughout the tournament.

Canada will lean on its depth and versatility to make up for the loss of a key player and former WNBA all-star.

"The young girls bring the energy, they bring the spark. The older vets bring the IQ, maybe more calm pace. So it's like really beautiful to see the mix of everything," Fields said.

Ejim, 21, is the lone college player on the team, while Laeticia Amihere just completed her rookie WNBA season with Atlanta and Shaina Pellington wrapped her NCAA career last year.

Then there are players in their prime such as Bridget Carleton, who just re-signed on a two-year deal with the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx and was named to the all-tournament team as Canada placed fourth at the 2022 World Cup.

Team captain Achonwa, Fields, Kayla Alexander and Shay Colley make up the veteran core.

Though he warned that the rest of the group is "tricky," Lapeña said he believes that his group will get through to Paris.

"The confidence they transmit me is the effort and the energy they bring on the court every single practice. Then, how the team environment is working. It's amazing. Every moment is a fun moment with them," he said.

The coach added that Nurse's decision to stay with the team in Europe — when she easily could have opted to go return home amid her trade from Seattle to Los Angeles — is an example of the culture the team has created.

"It means a lot for me as a head coach, it means that we create a great culture, relationships, and this is the most important for me because I know that the end of the day when we have the most important moment to win all of these, it matters," he said.

Kelly Defina/Getty Images
Kelly Defina/Getty Images

Perspectives on Paris

The Canadian women's team has competed in each of the past three Olympics, getting bounced twice in the quarterfinals before failing to make even the knockout stage at Tokyo 2020.

Achonwa, who was on the court in all three of those Games, said she doesn't necessarily feel pressure of the tournament after missing the WNBA season following the birth of her son Maverick, who is also with the team in Hungary.

"To come back to play at the highest level has been a lot of work. And it's also built this excitement for this moment for me, going in and knowing the gravity of the tournament could create pressure. But for me, it's just created excitement to know that I can overcome, that I can push my boundaries, my limits and still be all the things that I want to be," she said.

While she understands the stakes, Achonwa has mostly avoided talking to Swords, Ejim and the like about the importance of the moment.

"They understand the gravity of the tournament, and I think just allowing them to enjoy this moment," the Guelph, Ont., native said. "Doesn't matter the court you're on, it doesn't matter the country you're in, the ball is still round and the ball still has to go in the hoop to win."

Lapeña only took the reins of the team after Tokyo. He has overseen success already, most notably in the 2022 World Cup.

In Hungary, he will have to navigate a team missing not only Nurse, but standout UConn player Aaliyah Edwards.

"I like to be with the problems [for] a couple of minutes. To be with them, to enjoy them and to let them go," he said. "Then to put the focus in the task and to dream with the idea to qualify and to imagine how proud I'm going to be once we qualify to myself, to my team, to my players, to my staff, to the program."

The dream could become reality this weekend.