Ayim, Hirayama named Canada's flag-bearers

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TOKYO — Miranda Ayim says she felt "in a word, shock," when she found out she would be one of two Canadian flag-bearers at the Tokyo Olympics.

Nathan Hirayama, Ayim's partner in leading Canada's athletes into the Games, says he was "very surprised."

Ayim, a veteran of Canada's women's basketball team, and Hirayama, a co-captain of the nation's men's rugby sevens team, were named Monday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Canada's flag-bearers for Friday's opening ceremony.

"I was definitely very surprised, and I chatted with Nate 'Yo, what's up?" Ayim said Monday at a video conference introducing the flag-bearers.

"I believe his sentiments were similar."

Ayim and Hirayama are the first members of a team sport to lead Canada's delegation at the Parade of Nations opening a Summer Games. While their selection may have taken the two athletes by surprise, it's fitting given Canada is sending eight team sport entries to Tokyo, equalling the Canadian record for a non-boycotted, non-hosted Games.

"Team sports are normally not selected for this role, and I think it's the perfect opportunity and it's a beautiful image of what we've gone through this past year and a half," Ayim said.

"Team sport is a whole different beast. There's so many things going on. For sure the high-performance component, but as well working together as a team, dealing with all sorts of undercurrents and contexts and personalities.

"I think that's what we all recognize on a day-to-day basis, whether you're at home, or in the business world, or wherever you are."

Tokyo will be the third and final Games for Ayim. The 33-year-old from London, Ont., made her Olympic debut at London 2012 and announced she would be retiring after this summer's games.

Ayim and the fourth-ranked women’s basketball team start their quest for Canada's first-ever medal in the sport next Monday in a match against Serbia.

The team is appearing at its third straight Olympics after losing in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Games in Rio and the 2012 Games in London.

"We've worked long and hard to get to this moment right now," Ayim said. "To qualify for three straight Olympics is huge for us. We've been building on each of our successes and failures."

While Ayim is an Olympic veteran, Hirayama and the men's rugby sevens are at the Games for the first time.

The squad failed to qualify when the sport made its Olympic debut in 2016. Hirayama said that fuelled the team over the last five years.

"Having gone through (not qualifying) and putting in the work over the past five years to get to Tokyo with this group of people is really special and something we're really excited about," said the 33-year-old from Richmond, B.C., who joined the teleconference from his home province.

"We just can't wait to get on the airplane and get over there."

While this will be the first chance at an Olympic podium finish for the men's sevens squad, the team has had success at the Pan American Games with two gold medals and a silver.

Canada's women's rugby sevens team earned bronze in 2016 and has also qualified for Tokyo.

Hirayama will make his opening ceremony debut in a cavernous Olympic Stadium, as there will be no fans in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A rising number of cases in Japan means Tokyo is currently under a state of emergency that will remain in effect throughout the Olympics.

"I still think it's going to be such a special event, signifying the beginning of something that's been in doubt over the last year or so," said Hirayama.

A pre-taped message from Trudeau kicked off the flag-bearers' introduction.

"Miranda and Nathan are leaders on their respective teams," Trudeau said. "They embody the resilience, perseverance and excellence of Team Canada."

Trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan carried the Canadian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Women's hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser was the last member of a team sport to carry the Maple Leaf in any Olympic ceremony, opening the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Women's soccer captain Christine Sinclair, held the flag at the 2012 London Olympics, but her honour came at the closing ceremony, not the opening event.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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