July 25th, 2024

Next generation strives to make Canada’s women’s basketball team for Paris Olympics

By Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press on July 1, 2024.

East forward Syla Swords (8) defends West guard Morgan Cheli (21) during the first quarter of the McDonald's All American girl's basketball game Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Houston. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kevin M. Cox

VICTORIA – There are moments Syla Swords still gets a little star struck on the court.

In a matter of years, she has gone from doing school projects about her role models to playing alongside them on the Canadian women’s basketball team.

“I grew up watching Natalie Achonwa, Kayla Alexander on TV,” said the 18-year-old guard. “So I still remember the first time I walked in the gym with them. It was kind of crazy, scary, surreal almost. But now I’m getting more and more comfortable.”

Swords is one of 15 athletes currently training with the senior national team in Victoria, B.C., ahead of the Paris Olympics later this month.

Canada Basketball is set to announce the Olympic team roster Tuesday. The squad will play host France to tip off the tournament on July 29.

The group currently training in Victoria doesn’t include Laeticia Amihere, Bridget Carleton, Aaliyah Edwards and Kia Nurse, who are all playing with their WNBA teams.

There are several seasoned Olympians on the court and in the gym, however, including Achonwa and Alexander, Nirrah Fields and Shay Colley, and their experiences have been invaluable to newer additions such as Swords and Avery Howell.

“Having the vets and the people who’ve been here before, just being there to be amazing leaders, that’s honestly what they are,” said the 18-year-old Howell. “So it’s made it a lot easier, just knowing that I have people that I look up to and that have helped me on and off the court.”

Head coach Victor Lapena wanted to mix in a few fresh faces as he prepared the group for the upcoming Games, which Canada enters ranked fifth in the world.

Each player brings something different, he explained, and that helps the group as a whole.

“The older sisters help the younger ones,” Lapena said. “They support each other.”

Training with the senior team has meant missing out on some rights of passage for both Howell and Swords. Neither made it to their high school graduation this spring.

“That’s just kind of how my last couple months of school were. I was gone a lot,” said Howell, a dual Canada-U. S. citizen who lives in Boise, Idaho and has committed to playing at the University of Southern California next fall. “It was kind of hard, just because that’s kind of your last bit of high school that you wrap up with. But definitely worth it, I would say.”

Swords grew up in Sudbury, Ont., and has been immersed in basketball her entire life.

Her dad, Shawn Swords, played professionally in Europe, then coached the men’s team at Laurentian University before becoming an associate coach for the Long Island Nets in the NBA G League in 2022.

When Syla and her younger sister Savvy were growing up, their mom Shelley Dewar – who played university basketball – was working on a master’s degree at Laurentian.

“We couldn’t go with her to class so we’d go to my dad’s work,” said Syla Swords, who’ll play at the University of Michigan next fall. “He’d give me and my sister a hoop, we’d watch what they would do, the men’s team, and try and practice it. We’d watch film – we wouldn’t be paying attention, but you still listen, you hear stuff happening. So we’ve always been in the gym and around the culture of basketball.”

Syla playing in Paris would continue the Swords’ family’s Olympic legacy. Shawn Swords played for the Canadian men’s squad at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, finishing seventh in the tournament.

His experience has always loomed large for Syla and her sister.

“I grew up having his Olympic jersey hanging over top of the gym that I trained in every day. So you walk in, walk out, you see it,” Syla Swords said.

“He wears his Canada basketball stuff like he plays on the team. Just how important it is to him just transferred. That’s why we’re in the gym every day, to play for Team Canada at the end of the day.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2024.

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