Rio Redemption: Brondello and Cambage on significance of Tokyo Olympics qualification
The Australian Opals' appearance in Tokyo come late July will mark the seventh consecutive Olympic appearance. It is a feat that dates back to the breakthrough bronze medal won in Atlanta, 1996, the first time any senior Australian basketball team had won a medal at a major event.
It was a significant time in Australian basketball, with the Opals starting a run that would include winning the next three Olympic silver medals, two World Championship bronze medals, and then climbing the summit in 2006 in being crowned World Champions.
Sandy Brondello was one of the players that helped elevate Australian women's basketball as a contender on the world stage, earning two World Championship bronze medals along with two silver medals and a bronze at Olympic level before retiring from international basketball in 2004. Qualifying for the Olympics as head coach for the first time provided a new experience for Brondello.
"It’s really hard to put all my feelings in one, I’m just really relieved, obviously very honoured to be going to another Olympics but this time as a coach," explained Brondello after the win against Brazil. "I’m happy for the girls. We had to face a lot of adversity, having limited preparation, and while it wasn’t pretty, we found a way to win. It’s character building and we’re going to get better and better over the next few months."
The Opals booked their ticket to Tokyo after navigating their way through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Bourges, France with wins against Puerto Rico and Brazil. However, a narrow loss to France --who were playing in front of their boisterous home crowd-- was a reminder of how strong women's basketball is right now.
The Opals needed to dig deep to get past Brazil in their final game. Yet as has become commonplace with the current generation of Opals stars, Liz Cambage stepped up to lead the team to victory, along with Bec Allen. The WNBA stars were outstanding in Bourges and were duly recognised by being named to the All-Star Five as they successfully guided the Opals to Tokyo and an opportunity to back up the World Cup silver medal earned in 2018.
For Liz Cambage, the opportunity to suit up for her third Olympic Games in Tokyo was also a chance to gain redemption on finishing a disappointing fifth in Rio.
"I’m just excited. Rio was a really horrible time for most of us, we didn’t medal and the team wasn’t in the greatest place," shared Cambage postgame. "I’m just really happy we get another opportunity to represent our country at the greatest sporting tournament in the world."
In the Rio Olympics four years ago, the Opals fell in the quarterfinals to Serbia, missing out on a podium finish, and out of the medals, for the first time since 1992 Barcelona Olympics, an event the Opals did not qualify for. It is an outcome that Brondello is aiming to improve on in Tokyo.
"We’ll have a week’s training camp on the Gold Coast, end of March/early April," Brondello added. "That'll be great because we will get nearly all the players before they jet off to the WNBA. Obviously a lot of WNBL players will finish up and keep fit for the WNBA, but the others in Melbourne will get some individual attention from Cheryl [Chambers], in Adelaide Chris Lucas, and Paul [Goriss] in Canberra. After that we’ll have some small group work in June/July before heading into Olympic preparations."
Brondello would further explain that playing more games together as a team was going to be a focus on the Opals' build up to Tokyo.
"We’ll have some great games in Australia. That’s how we got better - we need to be playing more games. It’ll be a very similar preparation to the World Cup, so I look forward to getting back together, continue to work on our chemistry and improving in other areas that we need to get better at."
Having experienced a difficult Asian Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament in finishing third behind Japan and China, both whom also qualified for Tokyo along with fourth placed South Korea, Brondello recognises that every game at the Olympics was going to be tough.
"We aim for the gold; we know we have to speak those words to believe it, but we know every single game is going to be a grand final and we can’t underestimate anyone," Brondello said. "You’ve seen just now you have to be playing your best ball, you have to have a healthy team and sometimes you need a bit of luck. We’ll respect our opponents, but at the same time we’ll focus on us and make sure we’re playing our best ball."
Following her outstanding performances in Bourges in which she led Australia in providing 26.3 points, 11 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, Cambage was excited about the build up to Tokyo.
"I’m not sure what’s going on with the Chinese league at the moment, but I’ll be staying home getting fit," Cambaged shared. "We have an Opals camp at the end of March. After that I’ll head over the WNBA and start preseason and just be working hard over there. That’ll be my lead up to Tokyo, and then we fly back and have a camp and some games before we head off to Tokyo.
"It’s pretty exciting - I don’t get to play in the green and gold much in Australia, so it’ll be awesome just to get out in front of our home nation and sending us off before the big dance."
Also excited about the Opals' Olympic qualification was Basketball Australia's Head of Women in Basketball, Lauren Jackson.
“We are seeing some of the best basketball in the world at the moment,” Jackson said. “The Opals’ performance during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament is only a small taste of what this team can achieve, especially when given more time to gel in the lead up to the Olympics.
“Bring on Tokyo 2020!”