Having the entire gang back together for the first time in nearly two years, Canadian wheelchair basketball star Arinn Young could hardly contain her excitement.
“Oh my goodness, it’s so good to be back just playing with these women again,” she said during a break from training at the Toronto Pan Am Centre, where the men’s and women’s teams began three and a half months of centralization ahead of the Tokyo Paralympic Games which begin on Aug. 24.
“The vibe right now is really good, everyone is learning to play with each other again and gel. We’re really excited to start the summer and kind of build off what we were doing in 2019 before COVID happened.”
The excitement became more real with the announcement of their Paralympic opponents. Canada is in Group A with Australia, Great Britain, Germany and Japan. The United States, Algeria, the Netherlands, China and Spain make up Group B.
‘A Paralympic summer’
“If things go according to plan we should be in a good position come the playoffs,” said veteran forward Erica Gavel of their Tokyo group.
“It’s the first time in a long time where there’s actually excitement about the Games versus just trying to navigate what people are going to do from a COVID and restrictions standpoint. It definitely felt like a Paralympic summer.”
The Canadian wheelchair basketball teams know how fleeting that Paralympic feeling can be — last year’s Tokyo postponement, the cancellation of their typical pre-Games tournaments, exhibition games and camps. The preparation is apples and oranges from Rio 2016.
“This is completely different,” said Regina native Nik Goncin, who was a rookie on the 11th-place men’s team in 2016.
“Mentally, anything you do in high-performance level you try to get rid of things you can’t control, those stressors, but with what’s going on with COVID it’s like every single day something goes wrong, so it’s been an experience to adapt to things, changes in schedule, cancellations, vaccines, all of these things.”
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Despite the constant feeling of walking on pins and needles, the team feels fortunate.
“As far as basketball, we’re happy to have a gym, a lot of people around the world don’t,” Goncin said. “I feel like everyone is a little bit more grateful for what we have, how privileged we are playing sports for Team Canada.”
Young, a 24-year-old forward from St. Albert, Alta., is one of 12 athletes in the women’s camp and a key cog on the floor. A Rio 2016 rookie, she was the 2019 Para Pan Am Games’ top scorer in Lima, averaging 24.4 points per game leading Canada to the gold medal. At the 2018 world championships she averaged just over 20 per game in a fifth-place finish.
Fresh off her first professional season abroad with the Rhine River Rhinos in Wiesbaden, Germany, she’s also one of the few on the team to have recent competitive games under their belt.
“I’m pretty lucky I was able to go overseas and get a ton of games in, but I keep forgetting that the majority of the team has not played a game in over two years. It’s a little different.”
It was 440 days ago. Goncin remembers the exact date he last played a meaningful game that wasn’t against his teammates. His Toronto Rollin’ Raptors, with whom 70 per cent of the national team plays, were in a club tournament in Kansas in the middle of March 2020 when the event was cancelled after playing just one game.
“It’s been a long time to say the least,” he said.
There’s a good chance neither team will play a competitive game before Tokyo because of current domestic and international travel restrictions.
Without games it’s hard to know where Canada stacks up against the rest of the world, but it’s likely other countries are in the same boat.
“We’re improving, but we don’t know if everyone else is too,” Gavel said. “Just the unknown of how much our team is improving or regressing relative to other countries. That’s very much a wild card.”
Though the team was apart for 18 months, from an individual skill standpoint, the extra year was a silver lining for a lot of the newer athletes on the women’s team.
Gavel said every player on the team has improved tremendously over the last year and a half, singling out Puisand Lei and Kady Dandenault as players who have really upped their game.
“One thing that’s pretty amazing on our team is everyone works hard and does the work. It’s not an issue at all.”
Now, it’s all about building that all-important chemistry. Something the women’s team has in spades, Young says.
“Everyone has their own voice on this team especially when stuff isn’t working well or something’s not right. Leading up to a Paralympics you have to have that honest relationship with each other so that when it comes to on-court, that’s when you know you have each other’s back,” she said.
Like the women, the men took the time to focus on individual skills, but also, strangely enough, team chemistry. Goncin calls it the one silver lining that came from being apart.
Safety is No. 1 goal
“Obviously COVID put a stop to a lot of things, the physical and social aspect, but we also connected way more than we did before because we couldn’t do the other things like training and playing,” he said, adding that they were constantly Zooming, calling and texting.”
For both teams, the No. 1 goal for Tokyo is safety, but outside of that it’s medals all the way.
The men are looking to rebound from an 11th-place finish in Rio, a far cry from its gold-medal winning days at London 2012, Athens 2004 and Sydney 2000. The team also won silver in 2008 in Beijing.
Drawn in Group A alongside Korea, Spain, Turkey, Columbia and hosts Japan, Goncin feels a medal is within their grasp.
“Realistically we want a podium finish. That’s our goal,” he said. “More than that, just to get to Tokyo and compete because there’s three and a half months to go and so much can happen.”
Still, so much uncertainty. But they train on.
So do the women, who are firmly set on their goal.
“You ask pretty much everyone on this team and it’s a gold medal. I know there’s a lot of work to get there, but I have so much faith in this team that it is truly possible.”