By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
Kitchener will be in good hands when its lone Olympic athlete steps on the basketball court Saturday in London, England.
Those who have crossed paths with Chelsea Aubry say the 11-year Canadian women’s basketball program veteran doesn’t forget where she comes from. And on the court, the former Grand River Renegade and Waterloo Wildhawk club graduate is as hard-working, mentally tough and “unbelievably resilient,” as they come.
“She’s just unflappable,” said Christine Stapleton, the associate director of athletics at the University of Waterloo and Aubry’s first national team coach with the under-21 program. “Chelsea never had a bad day. She always had a good day and sometimes a great day.”
And Aubry always seemed to know where she wanted basketball to take her — to the top, which included an NCAA scholarship at the University of Nebraska, a professional career in Australia with the Bendigo Spirit and now the 2012 Olympic Games.
“She wanted to play at the highest level,” said Dave Hollinger, who coached Aubry for six years with the Waterloo Wildhawks. “And I think she’ll be a great Olympian. The Olympics are all about leading people and providing a positive example, and in that regard she will shine.”
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Hollinger can still recall the first time he saw Aubry patrol the paint.
It was the late 1990s and Hollinger had collected a group of Grade 7 elementary school all-stars. He took his team to Stanley Park Public School and was impressed with the 5’11” girl holding her own.
“I asked her what high school are you going to next year and she said, ‘I don’t know, is Stanley Park a high school?’” Hollinger said. “I thought she was going into Grade 9, so we signed her up and it was the best decision we ever made.”
From Day 1, Aubry was the hardest worker on the team and excelled on defence, Hollinger said. Occasionally, Aubry would roll into the gym five minutes before a game and covered in dirt after playing high school rugby, but would still be ready to go.
She was a leader and had a great sense of humour, too.
Hollinger recalls reaming her out for a technical foul at the provincial championships one year, only to have Aubry turn around when he was done and explain calmly it wasn’t her who committed the foul.
“It was the only time I ever yelled at her, and she took it like a lady,” he said. “Never complained.”
That same year, in Aubry’s final season with Hollinger, the Wildhawks won their only provincial title, beating a Transway team that dominated Waterloo for about half a decade.
In Aubry’s first year with the Wildhawks, the same Transway team beat them 95-9. Six years later, the Wildhawks beat them by a 20-point margin in the provincial championships.
“An athlete like that comes around once in a decade,” Hollinger said.
Not long after, Stapleton and Aubry crossed paths on the Canadian women’s under-21 team, a group that included two other current Olympians — Hamilton’s Shona Thorburn and Kim Smith of Mission, B.C.
Aubry was not a lock to make the team then, but did everything she could to win over the coaching staff.
“She had to work hard to make that team,” Stapleton said of Aubry, a former Grand River senior and junior girls athlete of the year. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great athlete, but she was not going to blow people away with her athleticism.
“But you could always bet that she would grind it out and be the last woman standing in a tournament.”
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Since then, Aubry has been a stalwart on the national team, suiting up for 144 international games with Team Canada, while shuffling between Canada, the United States and Australia.
It can be tough staying grounded while travelling halfway across the world, but Aubry still finds time for her hometown and Grand River Collegiate.
When she has the chance, Aubry stops by to run clinics for young girls at the school. Other times, Aubry will drop by with athletic gear — jerseys, shorts and dozens of sneakers — to donate to players facing challenging socio-economic situations at home.
“She’s just a very kind, down-to-earth person,” said Grand River Collegiate senior girls coach Scott Reynolds. “Just a good quality person.”
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But it has not been easy for Aubry, a three-year captain at the University of Nebraska who is close to retiring from professional basketball but making her Olympic debut on a Canadian team that hasn’t qualified for the Summer Games since 2000.
The Canadians open the five-game preliminary round against Russia on Saturday at 6:15 a.m. local time with the game broadcast live on CTV.
“It’s been a difficult but rewarding journey,” the 28-year-old forward said last week from Toronto before boarding a plane to England. “We’ve been through the low of lows not being able to qualify twice (in 2004 in Greece and 2008 in China), and there were times I didn’t think my body would be able to make it another four years.
“I felt like this was my last chance to make it, so it’s a great feeling to finally be going to the Olympics.
“I’m so excited and I’m sick of talking about it,” she added with a laugh. “I just want to get there.”
Aubry, who will have her parents, siblings and boyfriend looking on in London, said she expects to be like a kid waiting for Christmas morning until today’s opening ceremonies and Canada’s first game against Russia.
She isn’t the only one excited for her Olympic debut.
Her coaches, friends and teammates are pulling for the veteran, who has been waiting nearly three decades for this opportunity.
“I’ll have a smile on my face for sure,” Hollinger said. “I’ll think of all those memories, and once she gets a rebound or a blocked shot, I’m sure I’ll have a tear in my eye, too.”
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The Canadian women’s basketball team, including Kitchener’s Chelsea Aubry, tips off its Olympic tournament schedule on Saturday at 6:15 a.m. against Russia.
Here’s the team’s schedule for the preliminary round:
July 28 — vs. Russia at 6:15 a.m., CTV
July 30 — vs. Great Britain at 3 p.m., CTV
Aug. 1 — vs. France at 4 a.m., CTV
Aug. 3 — vs. Brazil at 9:30 a.m., Sportsnet
Aug. 5 — vs. Australia at 9:30 a.m., Sportsnet