Gaucher: Daughter Sophie has "most amazing group of powerful aunties"

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TOKYO — Kim Gaucher was on a two-hour bus ride Wednesday morning for a women's basketball scrimmage against France.

Baby Sophie could be heard gurgling happily in the background.

Before Canada even steps on the Olympic court this week, Sophie's presence is a huge victory — not only for Gaucher and the national team she's proudly represented for two decades, but for other breastfeeding Olympians, and female athletes in general.

Because of COVID-19, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers banned family members from travelling to Tokyo, but Gaucher and other breastfeeding moms and their supporters appealed the ruling — and won.

"It's been neat to see it brought to light," Gaucher said. "It's opened my eyes and hopefully it continues to change. And I think especially in the sporting world, female athletes, this is something that they have to deal with. I understand that it's a pandemic, I'm just glad that we're able to come up with a solution."

The 37-year-old shooting guard from Mission, B.C., stepped out of her comfort zone to post an impassioned Instagram plea, saying she was forced to choose between leaving her four-month-older daughter Sophie, whom she's still breastfeeding, for 28 days, or withdraw from the Olympic team.

Her story made international headlines.

The decision affected several other athletes, including U.S. marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, who said she'd cried "a lot" over the thought of leaving her six-month-old daughter home.

Gaucher has interacted with a half a dozen moms doing double-duty in Tokyo, both Olympians and Paralympians, to compare notes on the logistics of the athletes' village, transportation and other issues.

"It's been cool," Gaucher said. "I've also heard from a lot of working moms in the business world who shared their stories, who've been like, 'This is really cool,' and, 'This is what I faced at my work.'"

Sophie isn't staying with the team in the village; she and dad Ben are in a nearby hotel. But Japanese organizers have set up a room with a couch and a crib just outside the front gate where they can be together between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. — Gaucher's busy basketball schedule permitting.

It's a far better option than the alternative. Gaucher was almost resigned to not bringing Sophie, and had contacted companies about milk storage options for expressing milk and shipping it home. But any mom can tell you that pumping milk for a month, particularly when paired with an Olympic athlete's schedule, would be a formidable job.

"Pumping is so hard," Gaucher said. "And then there all the parts to wash. And yeah, it's a lot."

The trip to Tokyo was also a lot. The team flew through Los Angeles from its "bubble" in Tampa, Fla.

"She slept that whole first flight. And then, I was tired all during the layover and then the long flight from L.A. to here, she was awake. And I was like, 'What am I doing? I need to sleep,'" Gaucher said with a laugh.

At the Tokyo airport, there was a marathon of COVID-19 protocols that stretched for more than six hours, then a five-hour bus ride to their camp in Kariya City.

"I was on a bus with Bridget (Carleton) and Kia (Nurse), and I thought, 'If she screams this whole time, after 30 hours of travelling, people are not gonna be happy.' But thankfully, she slept the entire time there."

Gaucher's presence in Tokyo is key to a Canadian women's team that has climbed the international rankings under her steadfast wing to a best-ever No. 4 world ranking, with a legitimate shot at capturing a medal.

The day Gaucher learned she could bringing Sophie to Tokyo, her Canadian teammates rejoiced. Kia Nurse called Gaucher "a superhero."

Gaucher, who is making her third Olympic appearance, said her post-baby body is getting stronger.

"I've actually been pleasantly surprised," she said. "It's certainly a new, different body. It’s not quite back to where it was before. Certainly, it's only been four months, but it feels like every week you make really big strides, and you notice big changes in everything. It's been pretty cool to see the bounce-back.

"I'm obviously also surrounded by an amazing (integrated support team), so every single step of the way, I've had exercises to help get me there quicker and help me recover faster and all of that. I’ve been very fortunate."

Gaucher hopes she's helped push women's sport to point where breastfeeding moms are fully supported, not just grudgingly accepted.

"It should be the norm. Hopefully, it is," she said.

Back in March, University of Arizona coach Adia Barnes also shoved the issue toward the mainstream when she pumped breast milk for her six-month-old daughter during halftime of the NCAA final versus Stanford. Canadian guard and Tokyo Olympian Shaina Pellington said the players could hear the whirring sound of the pump during Barnes' halftime speech.

"That was funny," Pellington said.

That title game also featured two Black female coaches for the first time in NCAA finals history.

"I'm like 'Wow, there’s a lot of hats,'" Barnes said before Arizona's one-point loss. "It's the former WNBA (player), it's the Black woman, it's the mom.

"But it's a privilege for me. You can be great at all these things. You can be someone representing, and doing it with class, and professionalism, and doing well at your job. You can be a mom, you don't have to stop coaching. You just have to have support, and a village."

Gaucher couldn't have asked for a better village for Sophie. There's always a set of strong arms happy to hold her daughter.

"At meals and stuff, everybody will take her, wants to hold her," Gaucher said. "Same thing in the treatment room. I can just bring her, and then it also gives my husband a break, so it's been awesome."

Canada Basketball posted adorable photos this week of veteran forward Kayla Alexander reading "The Magic of Basketball," the children's picture book she and her sister Kesia wrote, to Sophie during some downtime at their camp. Gaucher had Sophie balanced on one knee, the baby staring intently at the pages.

"I'm so pumped for (Sophie), she has the most amazing group of powerful aunties surrounding her. And I can't wait to share all these stories with her one day," Gaucher said. "These are people that I'll stay in contact with for life.

"It's been neat to watch, and Canada Basketball has been absolutely amazing and so supportive of all of this, which has really been neat. And, yeah, all the teammates have embraced her, which has been so cool."

The Canadian women clinched their Olympic berth back in February of 2020 in Belgium, then faced a frustrating time during the pandemic. Because of strict protocols in Canada, they were unable to gather together until May in Tampa, where they were able to use the Toronto Raptors' temporary facility.

The team finished fourth at the AmeriCup tournament in Puerto Rico, their first actual games in 16 months. They were without WNBA players Nurse, Carleton and Natalie Achonwa in Puerto Rico. The trio finally joined the squad last week.

The Canadians, who lost in the quarterfinals in both the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, open the Tokyo tournament on Monday versus Serbia. They then face South Korea on July 29 and Spain on Aug. 1.

The Canadian men haven't played in the Olympics since 2000 in Sydney.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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