Thomaidis: sense of sadness leaving on low note of pandemic, Olympics

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There's a sense of sadness in leaving the job on a low note, but Lisa Thomaidis is also looking forward to coming up for air after nearly a decade of juggling two head coaching jobs.

Canada Basketball didn't renew Thomaidis's contract as the national women's head coach, in what was announced earlier this week as a mutual agreement. The news came on the heels of the Canadian women's first-round elimination at the Tokyo Olympics.

"Tokyo definitely cast a cloud over what we've been able to accomplish over the last nine years," Thomaidis said a day after the announcement. "When you think of 2019 and 2020, we went undefeated in the Olympic qualifiers."

Canada beat host and world No. 6-ranked Belgium, and Japan — who went on to capture silver at the Tokyo Olympics — in qualifying.

"It's the expectations that maybe we generated, that had something to do with it," Thomaidis said.

COVID-19 hit a month later, sending Canadian players scattering to various places around the world. They didn't reconvene until a couple of months before the Olympics, and went 18 months before playing again at full strength in their loss to Serbia in their Tokyo opener.

"The accomplishments were going so well. And then to kind of end on this note, for sure it feels a little anticlimactic, and kind of took away a bit of the shine of what we were able to do over the last little bit, but it's reality, and that's what we're faced with," Thomaidis said.

The 49-year-old from Dundas, Ont., said her team was playing its best basketball five months out from the 2020 Olympics, and had the Games actually been held that summer, she believes they would have been in the medal conversation.

"We were at full strength, we were playing so well, everyone was healthy. And then COVID, and life happened and people got injured, we weren't able to train. But yet the (medal) expectations still remained the same. And so, really unfortunate for our team, I think the timing was so yucky for lack of a better term."

Thomaidis was named head coach in 2013 and led the team to a FIBA world ranking of fourth, the highest in program history. She leaves with an 83-44 record at the helm.

She coached Canada to quarterfinal showings at the 2016 Rio Olympics and gold medals at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, the 2015 FIBA Americas championship and the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup.

The women's game in Canada has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade.

"I remember 2012 was the first time we were on national TV, at the Olympics," said Thomaidis, who was an assistant to Allison McNeill at those Games in London. "Before that, no one knew our national team and now to train in Edmonton (the Canadian women's home base), to have played at home, to have had a Pan Am Games in Toronto, people actually know our team now. They know the names of our players.

"To have a flag-bearer at the Olympics (Miranda Ayim) — just night and day where the program is now, in just the raising the profile of the players and the team.

"So, I'm just really proud of that, and happy that has happened."

Thomaidis received an outpouring of support on social media.

Minnesota Lynx guard Bridget Carleton tweeted: "Thank you @LisaThomaidis for all you have done for me and the growth of our SWNT over the last two decades (!!). Through the highs and the lows, I will cherish our many amazing memories together with the national team. Appreciate you so much!!"

Lynx teammate and three-time Olympian Natalie Achonwa wrote: "Chapters close, but the memories last for a lifetime. Thank you Lisa Thomaidis for all you have been & done for me and our SWNT program.

"From 16 year old Nat to 3 Olympics later . . . the tears, the laughs, the celly's . . . it's been a hell of a ride. love you!"

Thomaidis was an assistant on McNeill's staff for 12 years before she became head coach.

Running two teams has been a tough slog at times, Thomaidis said, particularly since FIBA changed its World Cup and Olympic qualifying schedule with windows of games in both November and February. It conflicted with her job as head coach at the University of Saskatchewan.

"I thought, 'Oh, boy, what's going to happen now?' Because in the past, our (national team) season would start up in May, we'd be done in September, maybe I missed a couple of weeks of the USports season, but not a big deal at that point. But now to be having these windows, it's just kind of too tough and a lot to ask of the university here, and then a lot to ask of Canada Basketball for me to still be doing two jobs.

"And I think for me, personally, just not enough hours in the day, and year after year after year of doing it, yeah, it's just time to just step away."

She looks forward to having some "me time" after being consumed by basketball for so many years.

"I get to get out on the golf course, get to go and spend time with family in Ontario, (see) friends around here," she said. :I think just an opportunity to give back to the community here a little bit more. You work so hard during this season, and then boom, I'd get up and be gone for the summer. The chance to get a little more invested in what's going on here and giving back to this community will be important to me."

Since Thomaidis took over as head coach of the Saskatchewan Huskies in 1998, she's led them to seven Canada West titles and two national titles, including in 2020 in one of the last major sports events in Canada before COVID-19. She's also a two-time U Sport coach of the year. The Huskies have reached the U Sports Final 8 tournament 13 times, including in 12 of the last 13 seasons.

If there's one happy memory from the rocky past 19 months, Thomaidis said it was the few weeks they were based out of the Toronto Raptors' practice facility in Tampa, Fla. Unable to convene in Edmonton due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Raptors lent their temporary Tampa home ahead of the Tokyo Games.

"When we were there, we did say, ‘This is amazing. But it's ruined us for any future training camp, this tops all of them and sets the bar so high,'" she said with a laugh. "So that was that was pretty special. To play in an environment that is just like so high-calibre and designed for high performance, for our players and our staff to experience that environment was pretty special."

What will she miss the most?

"For sure the players, just the incredible people that you get to be around every day with the national team, and for sure the competition, competing at the highest level and on that stage is special, and it's a privilege and definitely will miss that.

"I will relish all the great moments and all the stuff that we did achieve, we won a lot of games, but when I think back, it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun winning with people who invested so much into it — some incredible humans, so being able to win with them was really great."

The Canadian team will need to find a replacement quickly as the team's next international games are in late November, when the Americas qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup take place.

The Canadian men's program, meanwhile, recently signed head coach Nick Nurse to a contract extension through the 2024 Paris Olympics. The men remain without an Olympic appearance since the 2000 Sydney Games, losing in the semifinals of a last-chance Tokyo qualifying tournament in Victoria.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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