By: Holly MacKenzie
TORONTO, Ont. (May 29, 2020) – When the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team clinched their Olympic bid for the now-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Aaliyah Edwards was elated. After helping Canada post an undefeated 3-0 record in a FIBA Women's Olympic Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament in Edmonton this past November as well as finish second in the FIBA Women's AmeriCup 2019, Edwards was thrilled to get to celebrate a goal accomplished with her teammates. Getting to be part of this team experience at such a young age is something she hasn’t ever taken for granted.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said of her involvement with the Senior Women’s National Team. “They’ve definitely taught me a lot. I’m just trying to cherish the moments I have with them, and just make sure I am living in the moment.”
Though Edwards didn’t participate in the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Ostend, Belgium this past February, getting to watch the competition up close and participate in team practices is part of a basketball education not easily replicated. Getting to develop irreplaceable bonds with her teammates and learn from veterans -- some who have been representing Canada longer than she's been playing basketball herself -- has been a great experience for Edwards.
“[I’m] beyond happy,” Edwards said. “Just to be able to have this opportunity. It’s interesting, me being the youngest, us all different age groups and we’re all on our own paths, for us to come together and play as if we saw each other last night [whenever we do get together], is just amazing.”
As the youngest member invited to travel to Belgium with the Senior Women’s National Team, Edwards has become a pro at juggling basketball, school, friends, and the other demands of being seventeen. “When I’m not playing basketball, I’m trying to be a teenager, just hanging out, socializing with my friends, going out to a movie,” she said.
With high school now in the rear-view -- Edwards graduated from Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto this spring, after being named MVP and Best Defensive Player of the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA) -- up next is freshman year at the University of Connecticut where she committed last November.
When she isn’t playing basketball or training, Edwards can be found relaxing with a book in her hand. Of course, even here, basketball often factors into the equation. “I like to read a lot of basketball books, and sports books,” she said. ‘[Books about] getting into the right mindset. One of my favourite books is Relentless [by Tim Grover].”
When it comes to Team Canada, as the youngest member of the team, Edwards is 18 years younger than the team’s most veteran member. Despite the age gap, head coach Lisa Thomaidis says that Edwards’ mindset and maturity have helped her to fit in with her older teammates who have been playing together with the national team for years.
“She’s a gifted athlete,” Thomaidis said. “Very mature in her approach to the game. We’ve had players before make our national team at that age and it’s a huge adjustment. She’s got to fit in with players who are in their 30’s, who are professional athletes, and she’s still in high school. She’s done a great job of being able to fit in, and again, she has a maturity about her that really allows her to be part of a group and not feel out of place. And then of course, you look at her athleticism and her physical gifts and she fits right in.”
Part of what makes Edwards such a natural fit, besides her obvious talent, is her mindset. The women who represent Canada Basketball all share the common goal of wanting to be the best, while also wanting to help the teammates beside them be their best as well. Edwards has maximized every opportunity to learn from her national team teammates, asking questions, observing and picking up pieces of information wherever she can.
“Being with the Senior Women’s National Team my IQ has heightened. The players have been doing this for their whole careers now,” Edwards said. “I think the oldest [member of the team], Kim [Gaucher] is about 36 now, so for her, she’s been through the process and everything. I feel like Kim, and most of the other vets, they instill their knowledge in us. Like their experience in the Olympics, it kind of helps me develop my IQ personally and prepares me for the next stage or the next game, or even just practice and some of the concepts we run.
“They’ve helped my IQ, and [I’ve been] asking questions because they’ve definitely taught me a lot,” she continued. “I appreciate that because when I go back to my high school team or even just practicing, I feel like I have to be that leader now to make sure that I'm up to par and also help my teammates kind of play to that next level.”
Whether Edwards is sizing up an opponent on the defensive end of the floor, cheering her teammates on from the sidelines, or listening intensely as Thomaidis gives instructions in a huddle, she has a natural confidence that allows her to seem completely comfortable and equally at ease in each situation.
“She can be out there running around with WNBA All-Stars as she was in September when she was on our roster in Puerto Rico [for the AmeriCup] and not looking a bit out of place,” Thomaidis said.
Team Canada teammate Kayla Alexander isn’t surprised that WNBA All-Star competition doesn’t rattle Edwards. Getting to watch Edwards go at teammates in practice each day has given Alexander an inside look into the competitive fire of her younger teammate.
“The first word that comes to mind is fearlessness,” Alexander said of Edwards. “In a good way. When she’s out there, she’s confident in her game, she’s confident in her abilities, she speaks up, she doesn’t care who you are, she’ll attack you, she will try to go through you, try to block your shot, get the rebound, play defence. She’s competitive, she competes hard. She’s been an absolute joy and pleasure both to play with and watch and compete against. I feel like we’re just getting a glimpse of what she’s going to be able to become and the sky’s the limit for her.”
While Edwards is fiercely competitive on the court, she says she reserves her boldest moments for game time and that away from the court she’s much more introverted.
“On the court I turn into a different person in terms of playing for my team,” she said. “My favourite player was the late Kobe Bryant. He was a big inspiration and motivation in my life and to my family. Every time I step on to the court I kind of get into that mindset, just that relentless mentality, playing beyond yourself and putting 110 percent effort into everything you do. It doesn’t have to be scoring, it could be diving for loose balls, trying to get a steal or taking a charge. Those are the types of things I like to incorporate into my games. I feel like my energy on the court helps motivate not only myself but also my teammates. That’s how I kind of attack things.”
Whether it’s the absence of fear or the relentless mentality, Edwards’ approach has drawn rave reviews from her national team teammates and coaches.
“The level of confidence that she brings is impressive,” Thomaidis said. “The way she handles herself, the way she competes, it’s remarkable and it’s what has set her apart and enabled her to play at this level and be part of this journey with us.”
Basketball has always been part of Edwards’ life. While her earliest memories of the game are afternoons shooting around outside with her brothers, even then, she wanted to be the best player she could.
“I’m very grateful, beyond grateful for this experience,” she said. “I’ve learned so much and I'm continuing to grow as a player and also as a person. A lot of these girls, my teammates, they believe in me. They pick me up, they encourage me, they also give me positive criticism just to make sure I get better every time I step onto the court. I really cherish the moments I am with the national team. I really think it’s a great group of girls, great coaching staff and everyone who is behind the team as well. They might not be on the court, but behind the scenes, we really just appreciate them. The atmosphere they create for the people playing is amazing. I just love it.”
In a unique position of being the much younger teammate now, Edwards is taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and experience around her. Whether it’s at practice, a team meal, or during downtime in the evening, whenever she’s with Team Canada, she’s eager to listen and learn from her teammates.
“The thing that also sets her apart is she’s a sponge,” Thomaidis said. “The more feedback [she can get], the better. She just wants to learn more about the game and take in everything she possibly can from the other athletes that she is competing with and the coaches. It’s been great to see her develop even over the past six months she’s improved a ton and she’s just going to continue to climb.”
Edwards says she already has a favourite personal moment from her time in uniform.
“My favourite moment would have to be the first time being chosen as one of the 12 individuals to represent the country, wearing Canada across the chest,” Edwards said. “The moment all 12 of us, plus the coaching staff, standing on the free-throw line, looking up at our national flag and singing the national anthem together. That moment sticks with me every time we experience it. All of us are holding each other and letting each other know I'm playing for the person beside me and we’re playing for something bigger than just us. Our country, everyone who sacrificed for us, all of the fans who have been supporting us. That’s one of my favourite moments.”
With her national team career just beginning, there will be many more moments for Edwards to experience. While she’s used to people bringing up her age when talking about her basketball success, one of the things she appreciates most about her time with the national team is that age doesn’t matter within the 94 feet of the basketball court.
“Ballers respect ballers on the court,” she said.