Relentlessness of women's basketball schedule only amplified in Olympic year

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Aislinn Konig is seen above with Elfic Fribourg of the Swiss league. Konig is now with the Canadian national team, which is preparing for a whirlwind few months intended to end on the Olympic podium. (Le Cinq Majeur/FIBA - image credit)
Aislinn Konig is seen above with Elfic Fribourg of the Swiss league. Konig is now with the Canadian national team, which is preparing for a whirlwind few months intended to end on the Olympic podium. (Le Cinq Majeur/FIBA - image credit)

The life of a women's basketball player can be unforgiving.

A WNBA player might play 32 or more games from May through October, then fly out to one of several high-end pro leagues across the rest of the world to play from… October until May.

Throw in a few week-long national-team training camps — women's basketball players are typically more committed than most pro athletes in that regard — and the hours spent on flights and hardwood floors quickly add up.

The relentlessness of the schedule in an Olympic year, which the WNBA breaks for, only increases that wear-and-tear.

And for Team Canada in 2021, it means a 12-week journey together, outside of any pro commitments, intended to end on the Olympic podium in Tokyo.

The team gathered in Tampa, Fla., for training camp in mid-May, after a late move from Edmonton due to the pandemic. It'll stay there until June 14, when it heads to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the FIBA AmeriCup, a week-long Olympic tune-up tournament beginning June 20.

The schedule afterward is less set in stone — it's tough to make plans in a pandemic, after all — but the general idea is for the team to return to Tampa to continue Olympic preparation before moving to its pre-Games home in Kariya City, Japan for some time ahead of the Tokyo tournament.

Canada's first Olympic game is against Serbia on July 26 at 4:20 a.m. ET.

Prior to arriving in Tampa, Canadian guard Aislinn Konig was a pre-season cut of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, for whom she was only available to try out for in the first place once she found a replacement on her Swiss league team.

"That was a whirlwind," Konig said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.

It was about halfway through the Swiss season when Konig first heard about the opportunity in Washington, which came about following a conversation with Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, whom Konig has known for years.

"I said, 'Hey, coach, I'm trying to find somebody to have a difficult conversation with me about what I need to do to make it to the WNBA, how I can be better and why I'm not there already,'" Konig said.

With a tryout contract in hand, Konig then needed to find a replacement in Switzerland before the move could become official.

It took two weeks before Konig, the 23-year-old from Vancouver, found former WNBAer Alexis Jones to take her spot.

"Probably one of the most stressful two weeks of my entire life," she said.

Pros and cons of playing overseas

While Konig only had positive things to say about the organization, quirky stories like hers are commonplace outside of the WNBA. Language barriers and missed paycheques are also often cited as overseas issues.

For those who make the WNBA, the average salary in 2021 is just over $120,000 US, per Her Hoop Stats — over $45,000 more than just two years ago, thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement.

But given the relatively short WNBA season (34 regular season games, versus 82 in the NBA in non-Olympic, non-pandemic years), it often makes sense to continue to play and improve in a different competitive environment.

"I was really able to explore who I wanted to be as a player while over in Switzerland and grow the confidence in that and realized that I might not be everyone's first choice, but I should be my own," Konig said.

Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe and Miranda Ayim played in French league playoffs up to May 15 before heading to Tampa to join training camp. Nirra Fields played in Turkey, Kayla Alexander in Belgium and Natalie Achonwa in Italy. There were players in Germany, Spain and Poland too.

Kia Nurse skipped the past overseas season to work in Canadian sports media, while Bridget Carleton left her French team midway through the season, citing the rush straight from last season's WNBA bubble to France and distance from her family.

WATCH | Nurse hits half-court eurostep game-winner at the buzzer in WNBA:

All in all, there's plenty of experience for Aaliyah Edwards, fresh off her rookie season with UConn, from which to draw.

"There's some stories I'm like, 'Oh, I don't know if I'm ready for that right now.' But it's really about independence and just kind of holding your own down there. It does seem exciting [and] at the same time the schedule does seem demanding. So I think I'll be ready for it," Edwards said.

Meditation, reading help players stay balanced

Edwards said preparing for professional life was a point of emphasis with the Huskies.

"I always tell people it's not only physically demanding, but also mentally, being in a program like it is with the expectations, the pressure. That really transitions over to the women's national team as well, because you're not only playing for yourself but you're playing for your teammates and your coaches and everyone who has sacrificed for you."

To that end, the 18-year-old says she uses meditation and reading to help keep a level head. Edwards, who wears purple-and-gold braids to honour Kobe Bryant, says she's read Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by former Bryant and Michael Jordan trainer Tim Grover multiple times.

In Tampa, there's plenty of down time for those activities — players are mostly stuck inside their own rooms, with socialization limited to team meetings, practices and meals.

It's up to head coach Lisa Thomaidis to balance it all in order to bring the healthiest team possible to Tokyo.

"Certainly you have to be aware of the recovery that's required in order for us to put our best foot forward come July 26, and that all goes into the planning, what people can manage and handle at this point in time and how much we need from them on the court. So that's a balancing act," she said.

"It's just part of what our athletes do to represent Canada."