Thinking back to the 2012 Olympics, Natalie Achonwa admits that she and Canada were really just happy to participate. However, four years on, the North Americans feel they deserve their spot at the Rio 2016 Games and are looking to finishing on the podium.
Canada needed to go through the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament (WOQT) in 2012 and were the final team to book their ticket to London - beating Japan in the decider after losing to Croatia in the Quarter-Finals.
"We were happy to be [at London 2012]. It was tough because being the competitors that we are, we kept telling ourselves we are not just showing up. We qualified on Canada Day (July 1) so there was a lot of magic in that as well," Achonwa recalled. "But in reality we weren't necessarily prepared for it. I know we were happy to be there because we weren’t supposed to be there."
Achonwa and Co. won't have such worries this summer as they took care of business last year by winning the 2015 FIBA Americas Women's Championship.
"Now we're to the point, we've come a long way in these last four years. Now we just deserve to be there. It’s exciting to be at a point where we are confident going into a big tournament," said Achonwa, who was just 19 years old at London 2012.
The Indiana Fever forward, who is currently rehabbing from a knee injury, said it makes a major difference from 2012 that Canada have already locked up a spot in the Olympics.
"It gives you a different mindset going into the summer. Just like last summer when we knew our big tournament was [the] FIBA Americas [Women's Championship], we were able to train and peak at the right time and prepare for our end goal. Now it’s similar this summer knowing we are already in the Olympics. We can train and peak and really focus on Rio as our goal," said the 23-year-old.
Canada have reached two straight Olympics, but their last top-four showing dates back to 1984. And the country has never won a medal.
Achonwa expects the Olympic experience to be different from her debut in 2012. But she said that having been in London will be a major help for her and the team in Rio.
"The fact that many of us have been there before doesn't lighten the fact that it's the Olympics. We're taking part in an event that few people can say they have participated in. So that remains the same. That magic of representing our country at one of the biggest sports events in the world remains the same," she explained.
"We have a good mix and balance between experience and youth. Our younger players bring a new light and energy, and we have our vets who have been there and can put that light of experience on our younger players to see different perspectives," said Achonwa, who has already played seven tournaments for the Canadian senior team.
Achonwa, who debuted with the senior national team in 2009 as a 16-year-old at that year's FIBA Americas Women's Championship in Brazil, expects the level of competition in Rio to be very high with the United States and Australia the top powerhouses.