Belgium hoop icon Ann Wauters enjoys first Olympic at age 40
SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Ann Wauters is a pioneer for women’s basketball in Belgium, becoming the first player to play in the WNBA.
Now 21 years later, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 WNBA draft is the team captain of the Belgium squad playing in the Olympics for the first time. The Belgian Cats have won their first two games in dominant fashion, including routing Australia — the No. 2 team in the world.
“We came with the ambition to play at least a fourth game and go into that quarterfinals,” she said. “Then we’ll see what happens. I don’t think we have to put lots of pressure on our shoulder but definitely we are here with ambitions and I think we’re now in a pretty good position to already think about quarterfinals.”
The 40-year-old Wauters is playing more of a ceremonial role on the squad. She got her first Olympic action in the team’s blowout victory over Puerto Rico, scoring a basket.
“For me on a personal level, I’m just so thankful. I’m thankful to be here with this team,” she said. “We’ve worked pretty hard for it, but at the same time it’s just pretty amazing to be with that group of people accomplishing something that is huge for us.”
Wauters was taken first by the Cleveland Rockers and U.S. assistant coach Dan Hughes, who was thrilled to see his former player competing in her first Olympics.
“When we saw her the other day, she came running up and said can you believe we are here?” Hughes recalled. “It’s such an appropriate statement. Twenty-years ago I drafted her as a 19-year-old and watching her evolution and seeing her in the Olympics and what Belgium’s done is pretty remarkable.”
LACK OF SLEEP
There are not many players who are fans of the 10 a.m. start time for the first game of the day in the basketball tournament. Canada has played in the early time slot its last two games, which means an extremely early wake-up call because of the hourlong bus ride to the arena from the Olympic Village.
“I think when we come into every single game, it’s 10 in the morning first of all and we’re very amped so that’s impressive in its own right,” said Canadian guard Kia Nurse. “Not a lot of people can get up at 5 and do what we do on an Olympic stage, but we do.”
Spanish player Alba Torrens also wasn’t thrilled with the early start time.
“It has been a challenge,” Torrens said after the first game of the day on Sunday. “We’re not used to this time so we are very happy we got this win.”
Puerto Rico’s first Olympics has been a learning experience for the U.S. commonwealth. While the team has lost its first two games by double-digits, players and coaches are not discouraged.
The team closes out its group play against Australia on Monday.
“It’s a little bit eye-opening,” said Puerto Rican player Jazmon Gwathmey. “Right now we’re just trying to play hard, keep our heads high and keep our pride strong. The people back home are proud of us no matter the outcome.”
Puerto Rico played in the 2018 World Championship for the first time and went winless there too. That experience did help them get better and Gwathmey credits it with helping the team qualify for their first Olympics.
“It was our first time on a big stage. After that we got the silver in AmeriCup and qualified for the Olympics,” she said. “We’re getting better each tournament. This is the biggest tournament you’re going to play in. We’ll learn something from this.”
GETTING AROUND WITH HELP
Chinese coach Xu Limin is taken on and off the court of his team’s games in a wheelchair after breaking his left ankle a few months ago. He wears a walking boot that allows him to stand and coach during games, but with the locker room and press conference area a long distance from the court it’s just easier for him to get around in the wheelchair.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this story.
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