There can be veterans of the best sports activities present on earth and debutants, women and men, who’ve been attempting their entire lives to say that they’re an Olympian.

Belgium’s 40-year-old basketball participant Ann Wauters falls into the latter class. Once the first-overall choose within the WNBA draft, a WNBA all-star in 2005 and champion in 2016, and somebody who boasts a glittering resume of success with membership groups in three totally different continents, neither she nor her nation had ever certified for the video games — till now.

Ask her about it and he or she’ll describe it with such infectious pleasure that you just may even really feel that you just certified for the Games, your self.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions,” Wauters informed CNN Sport through video hyperlink from Brussels earlier than the Olympics, describing the second that Belgium beat Sweden and punched the group’s ticket to Tokyo.

“I remember the final call of the game; we were just jumping on each other, ecstatic.”

Speaking greater than a 12 months after that second, her broad smile nonetheless conveys the extreme feeling of pleasure and pleasure: “I remember I got a little bit emotional; I think I cried. Then I think the moment came and I realized, like, ‘Oh my God, we did it.'”

Wauters says that even within the quiet moments, away from the pandemonium of the sector, the place 6000 followers celebrated their achievement collectively, she’d nonetheless catch herself daydreaming about it.

“I was driving back home by myself; it was a very windy day, a storm and I remember I had to really focus on driving but it was still in my thoughts. Realizing like, ‘This is crazy!'”

Ann Wauters in action during the 2016 WNBA  season.

‘The one factor that I actually need’

After a long profession, the Olympics can be Wauters’ final hurrah.

“This is the one thing that I really, really want. I remember my son coming out and hugging me,” she mentioned, “and he’s like, ‘Momma, you’re not going to stop playing basketball. You have to keep going for a couple more months. Your dream is coming true!'”

The international pandemic meant that a couple extra months would turn into one other 12 months, however Wauters hadn’t waited this long to surrender on her greatest dream now.

Before she found basketball on the age of 12, the 6-foot-4 Wauters confesses to being one thing of a misfit. She informed CNN that basketball was the making of her

“I was very shy and I was way too tall, a long skinny girl, [and] I was much taller than all of my other friends,” she mentioned.

“It [basketball] really helped me a lot in becoming more confident and fitting in.”

At the time, basketball wasn’t precisely the most well-liked sport in Belgium; coach Philip Mestdagh recollects a panorama dominated by soccer and biking, telling CNN that the newspapers would characteristic “maybe 20 pages of sports; you need to look really hard to find even a letter about women’s basketball.”

But having nurtured herself on a video-tape food plan of Michael Jordan and one of the best of the early-Nineties NBA motion, her focus turned to the US and the newly-formed WNBA.

‘Very proud’

At the age of 19, in what was the league’s fourth season, Wauters was chosen as the primary choose within the draft and signed to the Cleveland Rockers.

She was already enjoying professionally in France and drove to a tv studio in Brussels to offer reside response as soon as her sporting destiny had been decided

Wauters, who did not have an agent earlier than then, recalled: “I remember that this agent was telling me, ‘Your life is going to change now, like dramatically!’

“Then, after I heard my title referred to as out as the primary choose, I was so shocked. I actually did not know what to say.”

Wauters lights up at the memory, beaming as she recalls her own response to the news: “I was identical to, I type of fell out of the sky; you realize, like, ‘Oh, actually? I can go and play, what, within the WNBA?!”

She jokes that her life didn’t change quite as dramatically as it would have done if she was a male player and drafted as the first pick in the NBA, but her destiny was nonetheless transformed in that moment.

The chance to play in the US opened up opportunities in Russia, Spain, Turkey and Korea, broadening her horizons far beyond anything she could have once imagined.

“Of course, I’m very happy with the trophies I’ve received and the titles and the championships,” she said.

“But extra so it is what I’ve realized, to be on totally different sorts of groups and totally different sorts of cultures, enjoying with individuals of various backgrounds.”

The Belgian Cats pictured during a match against Canada in 2020.

Wauters prefers not to claim too much of the credit, but she inevitably paved the way for Belgium’s future as a basketball nation.

The talented Emma Meesseman was the next big star to emerge; she became the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP with the Washington Mystics, and a new youth development programme helped the likes of Kim Mestdagh, Julie Vanloo and Jana Raman to get established.

In 2017, the Belgian Cats qualified for their first FIBA European Championship in a decade, where they finished third — their greatest achievement on the international stage.

They came fourth at the World Championships the following year and, ahead of these postponed Olympics, they have recently picked up another European bronze, only denied a place in the final by the eventual winners, Serbia, who beat them in the semifinals by a single point.

It’s an unlikely success story for a country of just 11 million people, frequently outperforming their bigger neighbors and making it to an Olympic tournament with only 12 available slots.

Coach Mestdagh compares the team to a family and praises their ‘humble and spontaneous’ spirit, but he says it’s now time for them to show more self-belief.

“Over in France and The Netherlands, they’re actually certain about themselves, character we do not actually have in our nation. But we can’t be the underdog anymore.”

Wauters attempts a shot against the Indiana Fever back in 2005.

‘So much bigger’

When Meesseman first made it into the Belgian national team, Wauters welcomed her into the camp.

Meesseman says that her own personality was true to the Belgian stereotype, meek and understated.

“I’m nonetheless a fairly quiet individual,” she explained to CNN. “I was simply hiding. She mentioned ‘How are you?’ I mentioned ‘good’ and possibly ran away!”

Wauters had a maternal way about her, but Meesseman would soon learn that there was more to it than that.

“I did not even understand how large it might get again then. I might really feel they have been all on a mission; she was actually working to make her dream come true,” she added.

After a lifetime of waiting, and then another 12 months for good measure, the plucky Belgian Cats are ready for their date with destiny and the realization of a dream.

“It’s a little bit of a cliché,” said Wauters, “however representing your nation is a little bit totally different to enjoying for a membership group. It’s a lot greater.”

She lists all the groups of people who’ve worked together to make it happen, naturally the teammates and the coaches, but also the family, friends and fans who’ve been there for support through thick and thin.

The Olympics is for all of them, she notes, because “additionally they believed in that dream.”

Having waited her entire career to compete under the iconic Olympic rings, Wauters has learned to appreciate what it means.

“I’d love that we — as a group — absolutely benefit from the expertise,” she explained. “That does not imply we’re occurring vacation; that does not imply we’re not bold, however typically you will be so centered in your targets that you do not get pleasure from it sufficient.

“I want us to live that experience to the fullest. It’s going to be my only Olympics, so I definitely want to enjoy that moment together.”

After Tokyo, Wauters will retire from the sport. And no matter occurs, this big of Belgian sport can be going out on a excessive.

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