Natalie Achonwa's resilience helps Canada get groove back
MIAMI (USA) - For Team Canada’s women’s national team, the Olympic Games this season were about more than just getting to the podium.
Coming off a fourth-place finish at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup – a spot in the Women’s World Cup Qualifiers was still granted, however it was their lowest finish in the last three years.
Dropping their final two games of that tournament to Puerto Rico and Brazil, Canada came into Tokyo with a fresh mindset, a fully loaded bench, and something to prove.
Then, in their first game in Tokyo, the team lost by four points to Serbia despite being heavily favoured in their pool.
“We’re just going into every match that we can playing our best basketball and trying to get the best points that we can,” said Canadian center Kayla Alexander.
“In order to accomplish our goal, we have to make sure we take care of every game.”
Canada knew that their game against Korea was a must win for many reasons – in a pool with top ranked Spain, they couldn’t afford another loss, but emotionally, the team needed to find their rhythm.
The road to Tokyo was difficult for everyone, but Canada’s journey was that much harder due to health and safety protocols that pushed them out of their usual training grounds in Edmonton and into camp in Tampa, Florida instead.
On top of that, Natalie Achonwa, Kia Nurse and Bridget Carleton all had to miss the AmeriCup due to WNBA duties, and three of the team’s youngest players – Laeticia Amihere, Aaliyah Edwards and Shaina Pellington stepped up to fill in gaps. But the future of Canada basketball just simply didn’t have the experience to get over the edge against some of the world’s best players.
Heading into their game against South Korea, not only did Canada need the win for their pool play standings and keeping their podium hopes alive, but their confidence needed the boost as well.
“Obviously we treated it as a must win, it essentially was that, we talked about playing 100 minutes, 40 minutes any 5 players,” said forward Bridget Carleton.
After leading by just one point during after the first quarter, one of Canada’s veterans stepped up to the plate in a moment she had been waiting for months to be able to do.
Achonwa, who suffered a sprain of her medical collateral ligament in June, used her recovery time to focus on team Canada instead of rushing to return to her WNBA team. While her career is important, being able to represent Canada on the world stage meant more.
And when the time came, Achonwa was the leader that Canada needed to pull out a 74-53 win over South Korea that instilled that Canada can be a medal contender when they find their rhythm.
With 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, Achonwa commanded the floor in a way she didn’t have the confidence yet to do five years ago in Rio, where Canada finished seventh. Just age 23 at the games in Brazil, and now 28, Achonwa’s growth mirrored that of team Canada as a program.
Shaking off the dust against Serbia having not played for the red and white in months, despite going scoreless from the floor she still contributed 5 rebounds, and the game against South Korea proved why Achonwa’s place on the roster was well deserved.
Players like Carleton and Shay Colley, who are competing in their first Olympic games, add to the expertise and shooting arsenal that others such as Nurse and Nirra Fields can provide which make Canada a well-rounded team.
But when it comes down to it, the impact Achonwa had in the game was noticeable – the energy the team fed from, the leadership and court vision she provided, and the physicality of being unafraid of the moment were the difference that helped all of Canada be better players and secure a 20-point win.
The bounce back from injury recovery, from finding chemistry with an entirely new team, from navigating an Olympic bubble with no friends or family was no easy challenge, but if Achonwa’s resume shows one thing, it’s that resilience is one of her key skills and that helped Canada back onto their feet going into a big match against Spain.
“It was crucial, all the games here matter especially during pool play, so it’s great to see that we were able to bounce back, and I hope that we can continue to use this momentum that we’re building going into our next game against Spain,” said Alexander.