Miranda Ayim is excited. Less than a week removed from her third Olympic Games, the 33-year-old veteran member of the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team is counting down the days until the Tokyo games get underway.
When Team Canada booked its ticket to Tokyo after an undefeated 3-0 finish at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgium in February 2020, no one could have predicted what was about to unfold. As the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, Ayim and her teammates wouldn’t be together again until nearly 16 months later, when they finally were able to reconvene and continue in-person preparation for the Olympics.
“We've been in a holding pattern for quite a while,” Ayim said. “We’ve just been training, and now we have everybody together, and it's finally starting to feel like we are ready to take that next step.”
After spending time in host city Kariya, Japan, the team completed its journey and arrived in Tokyo this past Saturday. Though Canada isn’t alone in navigating the unique challenges of the past 16 months, Ayim acknowledged the lead up to her third Olympic games was unlike anything the team had ever experienced.
“A lot of patience, a lot of diligence [was needed],” she said of navigating the uncertainty that resulted from the pandemic. “Definitely more stressful than we anticipated. But I think things are going to get real really quick around here and we're excited for this. It’s what we've been preparing for.”
Though the team had been diligently working for much of the past month in Tampa, Florida, before heading to Japan, -- in addition to participating in the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup 2021 in Puerto Rico in mid-June -- the bulk of Team Canada’s preparation over the past 16 months took place virtually.
Like the rest of the world, Team Canada stayed dialled in via Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected across the globe. From weekly check-ins and team group chats, to a mini, virtual training camp in February, the program made the most of additional time leading up to the Olympics, even across the distance.
“Our staff did a great job of really trying to keep us engaged with weekly touch points,” Ayim said. “We had a lot of touch points which kept us in contact and I think it was definitely helpful.”
Also helpful is the work that players and staff alike have put into building the women’s program over the past decade. The continuity of both roster and coaching staff paid dividends over the past 16 months as the group continued to build from afar.
"I think the bulk of the work came in all the years leading up to this point, having that solid foundation of loyal players who had really invested in the program,” Ayim said.
A lot has changed for Ayim since the team was together in Belgium. After spending the past eight years playing professionally in France, and the past six playing for Basket Landes, Ayim announced this past March that she would be retiring from her professional playing career following the Tokyo Olympics. Two months after her announcement, Ayim helped Basket Landes to the team’s first Championship in 13 years.
Every athlete knows that their playing career won’t last forever, but knowing the end date heading into the Olympics has given Ayim a deeper appreciation for all that she and her teammates have accomplished over her 12 years with the program. It has also crystallized the goal at hand.
“Coming into the Olympics and having a really good squad and being really excited about what we’re going to do here, it has been a wonderful year for me, just because I know it will be my last year,” Ayim said.
“I’ve really been cherishing every moment and just dialling in on those relationship pieces and things that I want to be focusing on. Being present in the moment. It sounds a little cliché, but it gains some weight when you know that these will be some of the last moments that you will have.”
While Ayim will be soaking up every moment, along with fellow three-time Olympian teammates Kim Gaucher and Natalie Achonwa, Ayim’s younger teammates will be soaking up as much of Ayim’s basketball knowledge and wisdom as possible.
“We have a lot of young teammates here and they're so cute when they ask us all questions about [the Olympics experience], like ‘What is it going to look like?’ or ‘How is this?’” Ayim said with a smile. “They're really eager to come in and contribute to the program. You know, we have a lot of strength on our team from the young players coming in.”
Leadership is something that comes naturally to Ayim. When she isn’t playing basketball, she’s often reading about one of her many interests, speaking to youth about motivation and confidence, or hosting her podcast where she talks with influential voices in sport, business and psychology. A problem solver by nature, Ayim is on a constant quest to deepen relationships, maximize personal growth, and leave each situation she finds herself in better than when she arrived.
“I love playing for teams, especially for an extended amount of time, because you’re actually able to really give into a program and plant some seeds that will be enduring,” she said. “It is a bit more of my personality or my desire to want to stay in one place and really build a program and enjoy everything that a program is building towards. All the people that were here before I even arrived, I think that legacy piece is really valuable and meaningful.”
When Ayim went to her first Olympics in 2012, the entire experience was, in many ways, a blur. The team qualified for the London games at the last possible opportunity and making it was almost a surprise. Four years later, in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, the team had expected to qualify and wanted to prove they deserved to be there. Fast-forward four (technically five, thanks to the pandemic), years later, and Canada has arrived in Tokyo as the fourth-ranked team in the world. Goals set by the team itself have almost become an expectation as a result of the steady improvements over the past decade.
“Over the course of a player's career, your goals, your vision and your role changes and evolves,” Ayim said. “I've found that over my career, I've stepped into more of a leadership position. A lot of those concerns and challenges and celebrations [for the team] are on my mind a lot more these days than they would have when I was twenty four coming into my first Olympics. [Today] I am really focused on how the team is working, how the team is feeling, and what I can do to help my teammates. Ultimately, I want us to perform well and realize the goals that we've set for ourselves.”
After one fairytale ending with Ayim hoisting the trophy with Basket Landes in May, she would certainly welcome another in Tokyo. As she and the rest of Team Canada embark on what will be her final Olympic games, she wants every Canadian who is tuning in from back home to know just how much each moment in her Canada Basketball journey has meant.
“I want everyone to know that we will do our best to represent you to the best of our abilities,” Ayim said. “We have so much love in our heart and pride to wear the maple leaf on our chest. I know that this team and the way that we play, our style of play, and who we are will make you proud. And I hope that these games bring some joy and happiness to the people watching back home.”
For the teammates and coaching staff suiting up alongside Ayim in Tokyo, the joy and happiness that she has brought in her 12 years with the senior program is as immeasurable as the impact she has had in helping to grow Canada to the fourth-ranked team in the world.
For the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and beyond, Miranda Ayim is Canada Basketball.