Olympic dream drives Canadian women’s basketball team

Teresa Gabriele remembers it like it was yesterday – marching into Sydney's Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies for the 2000 Summer Games.

Kim Smith

Kim Smith

Teresa Gabriele remembers it like it was yesterday – marching into Sydney’s Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies for the 2000 Summer Games.

It was truly a goosebumps-inducing moment, and it serves as powerful motivation for the Mission-born point guard as the Canadian senior women’s basketball team begins its qualifying campaign for the 2012 London Games this week at the University of the Fraser Valley.

“I was 20 when that happened, and I was so young,” marveled Gabriele, now 31, and the only current Canadian player who was on the roster the last time the national team qualified for the Olympics.

“It’s just a whirlwind when you’re there. You don’t really know until a little bit later how much that means. To go again and experience another one, it would be just amazing.”

Team Canada opened an eight-day run at UFV’s Envision Athletic Centre on Monday, and they depart for a series of exhibition games in Europe on Tuesday, May 24.

They’re gearing up for the FIBA Americas Championship for Women in Colombia (Sept. 24-Oct. 1), where one Olympic berth is up for grabs. Canada, No. 12 in the FIBA world rankings, will battle No. 6 Brazil, No. 10 Cuba and No. 13 Argentina for that berth. (The United States has already qualified for the Olympics, by virtue of winning the World Championship last year). The nations that finish second through fourth at the Americas tourney have a second chance at the FIBA World Qualifying Tournament in June 2012.

For Canadian head coach Allison McNeill, time is of the essence.

“We were the only team of the 16 at the World Championships last year that does not have a domestic league for women,” McNeill pointed out. “Our players are all over the world, playing different styles.

“So we try to get right into team play. There’s not a lot of individual skill work, because we’ve got to get them playing together.”

The 20-player roster that convened at UFV this week was scattered all over the globe until recently. A dozen played professionally overseas – in locations including Australia, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Lithuania. Six played south of the border in the NCAA, while Gabriele and Kadie Riverin trained on their own in Canada.

The demanding schedule Gabriele adheres to indicates how much another trip to the Olympics would mean to her.

“My parents have a few different bread franchises through Canada Bread, so I work for them,” said Gabriele, who is currently sidelined with a foot tissue injury. “I go to Costco and Walmart in the mornings and shelve the bread. I get up at 4 a.m., and I’m done work by 8 or 8:30. Then I have the rest of the day to train.”

The Olympic campaign figures to be Gabriele’s swan song after 13 seasons with the national team. McNeill said that words can hardly do justice to the 5’6″ point guard’s contributions to the program.

“She’s brought a level of excellence that no coach could force,” McNeill marveled. “She’s such a role model. She lives it, breathes it, shows it every day. She’s amazing.

“She has great support from her family and her husband. To train on your own is very difficult. Most people couldn’t do that.”

Whether Team Canada can make a run at the FIBA Americas title will come down to chemistry, McNeill said.

“We’re capable of beating any of those teams down there, and we’re capable of winning it,” she asserted. “But so are other teams – it’s that close. So we have to play better together, because other teams might have better talent than us individually.”

• The senior women’s national team practice schedule at UFV for the balance of the week is as follows:

Thursday, May 19

5:30-7:30 p.m.

Friday, May 20

9-11:30 a.m.

5:30-7:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 21

9-11:30 a.m.

Sunday, May 22

9-11:30 a.m.

5:30-7:30 p.m.

Monday, May 23

9-11:30 a.m.