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Olympic dream comes true for Arizona point guard Shaina Pellington

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Basketball, women’s; Shaina Pellington from Canada in action... Photo by Carlos Garcia Granthon/Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Representing her country at the Olympics is a goal that Arizona point guard Shaina Pellington has been working towards for years. She finally saw that dream become a reality when she was named to the Canadian Olympic team on June 29.

“It still hasn’t honestly really hit me like, ‘wow, I’m an Olympian,’” Pellington said.

Even the outpouring of congratulations hasn’t made it fully sink in.

“Since the announcement of making this team, it’s been overwhelming, just the support from everybody,” Pellington said.

Pellington helped Canada qualify for the Olympics during the 2019-20 season. It was her sit-out year after transferring to Arizona, so she wasn’t able to compete or travel with the Wildcats. The Olympic qualifying tournaments allowed her to continue competing and chasing her goal.

But after the 2020 Games were postponed due to the pandemic, she was left in the limbo that all potential Olympians were in. Would there be an Olympics in 2021?

Now, she’s just days from leaving with her team for camp in Japan. The group has been living and training in a bubble environment in Tampa, Fla. as they prepared for the recent AmeriCup and the Olympics. They will finally head off to Japan on July 4.

The excitement of being an Olympian isn’t the only thing the experience offers for Pellington, though. The chance to improve her game is an opportunity she is taking full advantage of. Playing alongside professionals and women who have already been to multiple Olympics is an honor she doesn’t take for granted.

Canadian head coach Lisa Thomaidis has been critical in Pellington’s development. Thomaidis, who is also the head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, has known Pellington since the player was 16. That’s when the national program first identified the point guard as someone who might reach this level someday.

“One thing about Lisa, especially since I’ve been here (in Tampa), she spent a lot of individual time with me, helping me develop my game, not just for the Olympics,” Pellington said. “She wants me to be the best Olympian that I can be, but also just the best overall player I can be for when I depart from here as well. So one thing I really do appreciate Lisa for is helping me out with it just every day. She’s helping me just from a point guard’s perspective. How I can be a better leader on the floor, how I can improve my game, work on the things I need to work on. And I’m getting better every day.”

As for playing alongside women who are already making their living playing professional basketball, Pellington is also grateful for the input of WNBA players Kia Nurse, Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton. While the WNBA players didn’t go to Puerto Rico for the AmeriCup, Pellington did play with them during Olympic qualifying.

“I can say it’s an extremely competitive environment when (Nurse is) here,” Pellington said. “It’s already competitive when she’s not, but it’s extremely competitive. I can literally ask her questions about anything, and she’s very easy to talk to. And she wants to help you, so I learned a lot from her. Also, Natalie Achonwa, Bridget Carleton, all those different girls, they all really take the time to help me out. If you have any questions, educate us, help us out. So, yeah, it’s a great experience having them as leaders and mentors on this team for me.”

The entire group will soon be together. Nurse spent the week wrapping up her final pre-Olympic appearances with the Phoenix Mercury and both Achonwa and Carleton are leaving the Minnesota Lynx to join their national team. The group will enter another bubble in Kariya City, Japan prior to going to the Olympic village. There, they will train together until it’s time to head to Tokyo.

Will it finally hit her that she’s a real, true Olympian then?

“I’m sure it will once I actually get into the village,” Pellington said. “Get all the cool equipment and stuff that we’ll be getting. It’s gonna get real real soon.”

When it does, it will be the culmination of the hard work that she put into fulfilling this dream.

“Being able to stand next to my teammates to sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games, it’s an experience that I’ve looked up to having my entire life,” Pellington said. “I’ve worked my entire life for this opportunity, and I finally have been awarded that.”

The Canadian national team, which is ranked a program-high No. 4 in the world, will begin play on July 26 against Serbia. Their next two games will be July 29 against the Republic of Korea and Aug. 1 against Spain.

The Canadian team is hoping to win the first Olympic medal in women’s basketball in the country’s history. Their best finish in the Olympics was fourth in the 1984 Games that were boycotted by the U.S.S.R. and several aligned countries.