Steve Milton, Hamilton Spectator
As a coach, she has to be honest about expectations.
So Lisa Thomaidis recognizes roughly where the Canadian women’s basketball team fits in to the first Olympics they’ll attend in 12 years.
“Any time you get to the Olympics, the competition is extremely difficult,” the Dundas native and Team Canada assistant coach was saying after Canada’s emotional win over Japan on the weekend qualified the team for the London Games. “Our goal this year was to get to the Olympics.
“We’re not medal contenders, and most of the people in our pool are ranked above us. But we stayed right with France when we played them, and we were close to Russia. Still, anything above the pool play, to get to the quarter-finals, and we would be playing over our head.”
Canada, ranked 11th in the world, is in an Olympic opening-round pool with Australia (second in the world), Russia (third) Brazil (sixth), France (eighth) and host Great Britain (49th).
The Canadian women’s team hadn’t made it past the Olympic qualifying stage since the Sydney 2000 Games, the year before Thomaidis joined the coaching staff. Things looked a bit shaky this time around, too, when Canada lost to Croatia in a game in which the winner got an automatic berth to London. A couple of days later, Canada beat Japan at the same tournament in Turkey to gain the last spot available.
“It was awesome,” Thomaidis said. “The loss to Croatia was such a heartbreaker. We knew we had the stuff to beat them, but we didn’t shoot well. Then, to get the last possible berth, on the last possible day, and to have that day be Canada Day. …”
Unlike so many cagers from the Hamilton area who’ve gone on to bigger things around the court, Thomaidis never played club ball. She calls herself a “late bloomer in the sport,” picking up the game at Dundas Highland, then starring for five years at McMaster, including three OUA all-star seasons.
After graduation, she played two years of professional ball in the top Greek league then, 14 years ago, became head coach at the University of Saskatchewan where the women’s program had been in disarray.
“It was a good opportunity for a young coach,” she says. “And I grew with it. University of Saskatchewan has been good for me. There’s lots of support for the team. We get 1,000 people out for the game, and we sold out when we hosted the final four.”
Thomaidis’s team has qualified for the national championships for five straight years. They haven’t won the title, but “we were runners-up last year.”
She’s been an assistant to Allison McNeill in the national program since 2001, but never wanted to be the head coach.
“Allison and I came in at the same time, so I couldn’t have been anyway,” she said. “She’s perfect for the program. I’ve never seen anyone with such a work ethic. This Olympic berth was a real deserved reward.”
Thomaidis says that multi-sport tournaments are always a bigger distraction than single-sport ones, and the Olympics are the king of distractions. But, she says, the Canadians are an older, more experienced team than usual and should handle the program’s first Olympic appearance in a dozen years with maturity.
“This is the start,” she says, “a stepping-stone to something down the road. It’s a showcase for young ball players to see and get interested in and inspired by basketball. And we’ll grow. We’ll be there again, four years from now, not 12 years from now.”