Tokyo heartbreak: Cayla George on Olympics, WNBL22 and a home World Cup
George left it all out there on the court in Tokyo. The pain of leaving without a medal still hits hard, but she's determined to get the Opals back where they belong.
Image courtesy of FIBA
Time heals all wounds, eventually. For Cayla George however, the memories from the Australian Opals’ Olympic campaign are still too vivid. The emotional toll, all too real. The superstar Opal, who played her heart out in Tokyo, admits she’s still processing the tournament which saw Australia go 1-3 and lose in the quarterfinals to Team USA.
“The Olympics are the pinnacle and that was a really big disappointment for us,” George said. “There was a lot of backlash in the media and that’s always hard to combat on top of how you’re feeling because you know it wasn’t enough for the Opals’ standard. A lot of factors were in play and there’s a lot of speculation about what happened, but we were there, we know – hopefully time heals.”
George, who I caught up with at the recent Under Armour Brand House Launch at Highpoint Shopping Centre, spoke candidly about her experience in Tokyo, and it’s clear that the pain from not bringing home a medal is still raw.
Cayla George, pictured alongside fellow Under Armour athletes AFLW player Nicola Stevens and Southside Flyer Maddy Rocci at the Under Armour Brand House Launch at Highpoint Shopping Centre.
“All I wanted to do at the Olympics for us a collective for the nation was to make some noise, and unfortunately it was just a bit of the wrong kind of noise. I’m pushing to change that narrative and really quickly because the Opals deserve that as their legacy is massive.”
Legacy is a point of emphasis when George talks about the Opals. She understands the history of the program and wants to help keep the tradition of greatness and winning medals at major tournaments alive. With that in mind, next year is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often; a FIBA World Cup at home in Australia.
George understands the magnitude of what next year could hold and after the Olympic disappointment, she sees that tournament as a chance to turn the page.
“The thought of that really gets my juices going and my juices were empty after the Olympics because emotionally it was a lot. I’m still processing a lot of that but thinking about the World Cup and how we can change the narrative, that’s all I want to do – change the narrative because Opals previous, current and in the future deserve that narrative to be and remain how it has.
“The Opals are an amazing basketball team. We’re where we are for a reason and I just want that narrative to change real quick.”
“Honestly there is nothing like playing for your country but on home soil – we got to experience that at the Commonwealth Games – it’s incredible. The Commonwealth Games are a great tournament, but it’s a Commonwealth tournament. The World Cup will have the best of the best there, and it’s going to be amazing.”
Despite the results in Tokyo, George was a shining light for the Opals, leading the team in scoring (13 points per game) and rebounds (7.3). Even when things weren’t going Australia’s way, George was a constant threat in the paint and worked tirelessly on the boards. For all of her hard work, there was one moment that stood above all others and I’m sure you all know what moment I’m talking about.
Needing to win by 25 points against Puerto Rico to qualify for the quarterfinals, it was all on the line for the Opals and that George fadeaway sent Australians across the nation into hysterics. George readily admits that could have been a drive to the bucket instead, but I for one appreciate the production value of a fadeaway over a much smaller defender
Speaking about the game, George admits it was strange from the outset.
“It’s honestly the most bizarre situation I’ve ever been in. You’ve got a team that you can absolutely beat by the margin you need to but you have to beat them by that to make the quarterfinals of an Olympics. You’ve got Canada on the sidelines praying that you can’t do it, you’ve got the Puerto Rican coach – who I was told afterwards was swearing in the tunnel saying ‘don’t let them win, don’t let them f***ing win’.”
“I knew that that was their intention, which obviously they want to be competitive and had nothing to lose, and that’s usually the team that plays more relaxed. I remember going into the game like, ‘yep, we’re all good, we just have to be up by this much at quarter time, this much at half time, we’re fine.’”
After Puerto Rico’s first made basket, she broke out into a brief panic. "... my mindset went to argh, sh*t, argh!", followed by more colourful language in her head, as the Opals trailed.
“I really was so panicked as soon as they scored and I couldn’t help that I felt that way, it was such a pressure cooker. I’ve never had to reset so much in my life, but at half time I just kind of went into ‘Olympic mode’ and the pressure from the first half was so different to the second.
“I couldn’t tell you what it came down to because my intention to start the game was the same as my intention in the second half. I was so intensely hyped but so focused, I don’t think I’ve ever been that focused in my life, but I was never worried. In the first half I was concerned, but in the second half there was not one bit of worry at all – I knew we were going to do it.”
The shot and the victory was made all the more impressive, after bouncing back from the heartbreaking two-point loss they endured just a couple of days earlier against China.
“After the results of the other games, there was so much emotion in it and especially after the China game I was a mess, but I had no choice but to reset. It’s unfortunate that we crossed over to play USA, but we’ll be accountable, that’s on us – we needed to win at least one of those other games and we might’ve been okay.
“It is what it is, life goes on and we will get back on that podium. You’ve heard it here first!”
At the brand new Highpoint Under Armour store, George was part of a Q&A panel hosted by Candy Hertz with fellow Under Armour athletes AFLW player Nicola Stevens and Southside Flyer Maddy Rocci, and it was an eye-opening chat about females in sport, staying motivated during lockdowns and much more.
Whilst the Opals were unable to come away with a medal at the Olympics, George has her sights firmly set on helping the Melbourne Boomers go all the way in the 2021/22 WNBL season. After making the top four last season, the Boomers have reloaded in hopes of going to the next level.
There are three legitimate MVP candidates in George, Ezi Magbegor and Lindsay Allen, while import Tiffany Mitchell and Opal Tess Madgen round out an incredible starting five. For basketball fans in Melbourne, who missed out on any live WNBL action last season, this team shapes as one that the general public will be able to get behind.
The Boomers will be pushing the pace with Allen orchestrating the offence and the double big line-up with George and Magbegor will spell trouble for the rest of the league once again.
George can’t wait for the Melbourne fans to be back in the stands.
“With COVID, I’ve been fortunate to be able to train and play, and even in Tokyo we had staff and the stands weren’t completely empty – there was a good atmosphere and we made our own atmosphere, so we just kind of got used to it.
“I’m probably more excited for the Melbourne community to be able to watch games live because as I said, I’ve been able to play and get a lot of joy out of playing. For the community to come out and the Boomers family to come out and watch us play after what’s happened in Melbourne, I’m just excited for them.”
George is excited for the fans, but as a player she loves seeing the league continue to go from strength to strength and attract world class talent.
“Every year the league gets stronger; we get amazing imports coming over and there’s a lot of imports that have actually reached out to clubs here to come over, it’s not the other way around, so that’s really exciting for the standard of the league and I think it’s one of the best leagues in the world for sure.”