Rewind Wednesday will bring back big moments for Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes. On this week’s edition, relive the moment the Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball team took on Germany for gold at the 2014 world championships in Toronto.
Winning a world championship at home in front of your family and friends is a hard act to follow.
For Arinn Young, it’s a feeling she’s been chasing ever since.
“That’s a one in a million chance for any athlete to be able to do that,” Young said of winning in Canada. “It’s surreal. To this day, it’s still one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
Retired Canadian wheelchair basketball superstar Janet McLachlan smiles when she recalls that “unbelievable run” at those 2014 world championships.
“To be honest, I still can’t believe it happened. It’s been eight years and it hasn’t sunk in for me yet. It really hasn’t sunk in,” McLachlan said from her home in Giessen, Germany, where she lives with husband-to-be Nicolai Zeltinger, head coach of the German men’s wheelchair team, and their two-year-old daughter Kaylie.
“Being at home was huge for us. It could go either way — too much pressure, for example, but for whatever reason, all the pieces came together. We knew we could achieve great things. But to win, at home? It’s still hard to put into words.”
McLachlan represented Canada at three Paralympic Games and was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in London 2012, but in 2014 she was still searching for the first major title of her career, hoping to join the likes of great national players before her like Chantal Benoit, Marni Abbott-Peter and 2014 teammate Tracey Ferguson.
Relive the action from the dramatic final between Canada and Germany on Wednesday beginning at 9 a.m. ET.
While you watch that match, join us on the CBC Olympics Instagram channel on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. ET for an Instagram Live broadcast with Canadian star Cindy Ouellet and CBC Sports host Andi Petrillo.
WATCH | To the heart, with Cindy Ouellet:
Legacy on and off the court
When McLachlan said ‘all the pieces came together,’ it really did on and off the court in the mind of Wendy Gittens, executive director of Wheelchair Basketball Canada.
Gittens was the tournament director at the 2014 worlds, the first time the women’s tournament was held as a standalone event, and Wheelchair Basketball Canada wanted to make sure it was equal to the men’s event, if not better in terms of profiling.
“I think we set a new standard and raised the bar for hosting events for the international federation,” said Gittens, whose organization also hosted the Under-25 women’s wheelchair world championships in 2011 and is exploring future hosting opportunities.
“We webcast every game with play-by-play, we ran a school program so we had bums in seats and exposed the sport and athletes with a disability to over 30,000 students that week. All of those things hadn’t been done in the past to that level. We were in downtown Toronto in the Mattamy Athletic Centre [formerly Maple Leaf Gardens] with its history.
“We really did strive to up our game to deliver a world class event and open people’s eyes to the value of para sport.”
Play-by-play commentator Rob Snoek had a unique perspective courtside calling the 2014 worlds. The experienced sports broadcaster is also a three-time Paralympian in athletics.
His first experience with high-level wheelchair basketball was at the 1992 Barcelona Games and he watched the gold-medal runs of the women’s program from there through Sydney 2000.
“I saw how far they’d come, going from being the dominant team for so many years to going a tier or two down and then coming back up again and ultimately winning the gold against Germany. It was huge for the Canadian program.
“As a broadcaster, of course you’re trying to be as objective as you can, but as a Canadian there’s a part of you that’s still proud of the women doing what they did.”
Underdogs at home
Despite the home-court advantage, Canada was not one of the tournament favourites. At the time they were ranked No. 6 in the world and the national program, which had won three-straight Paralympic gold medals from 1992-2000, had finished off the podium completely in Beijing and London.
“Going into those worlds in 2014, other countries kind of laughed at us. They didn’t think we were going to win,” Young said. “But we felt differently. We had to prove a point that Canada was still the best. Some of that confidence came from everyone’s internal battles of past few seasons. It just kind of trickled down from each athlete into the staff, everyone just had a feeling we were going to win.”
The Canadians had undergone a big turnover of senior athletes and players who’d played significant minutes over previous Paralympics and world championships, but that didn’t faze them, McLachlan said. There was a positive vibe around the 2014 team and they were focused from the opening tip-off.
The preliminary round saw double-digit victories over Japan, Brazil and China and a squeaker over Great Britain. The only blemish was an 11-point loss against Germany, the No. 1 team and reigning Paralympic champions.
“Even though we lost that game, we were close,” McLachlan said. “We went into the changeroom after that game and said ‘no worries, we know we can beat these guys.'”
They would have another opportunity at the Germans, but first came an epic semifinal against the Netherlands. The Dutch were pegged as the tournament’s darkhorse, a nation on the rise which had gone unbeaten in the tournament.
Canada had opened up a nine-point lead with less than 2:30 to play in the game, but the Dutch came back with some sharp shooting to take a 74-73 lead with 9.8 seconds to go. The play was drawn up — get the ball to McLachlan.
Katie Harnock inbounded to Cindy Ouellet back to Harnock, who found McLachlan at the right elbow and with two players on her like a postage stamp, she calmly swished the shot with .8 seconds left to put Canada into the gold-medal game.
“Janet was very composed when she played, she rarely showed emotion,” Young said. “But when she scored that bucket, for her to fist pump so big and the bench to fist pump along with her … just wow.”
“It showed they deserved to be there,” Snoek said. “It showed they could overcome adversity and maybe gave a hint that it was destiny for them to win it all.”
“Nobody else on the team had the experience that she had. She said ‘we’ve done the hard work, we’ve got to the final, we know we can beat them.’ And the way she spoke then, it helped us find that piece that we needed to beat Germany in the final.”
While it was an edge-of-your-seat kind of game, the Canadians led the entire way, even flustering the Germans with an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter.
The confidence the Canadians gained throughout the tournament was at its height in the final. They were focused. They did all the little things right. They played hard to the end.
And as those final seconds ticked down to the buzzer, McLachlan and her teammates looked at each other in complete shock.
“The five of us on the court. I think there was this disbelief there because we’d worked so hard for so long and we’d lost to Germany so many times. To finally put it all together and do it the right way and to win at home in front of our family, our friends, our fans. The people who had supported us the whole way.
“I never imagined I’d be a world champion, ever.”
The win was Canada’s first world championship gold medal since 2006. Their streak of four straight had been broken in 2010.
Among those celebrating with the team was a group of spirited alumni who flew in for the tournament.
“That speaks to our women’s program over the years. We’ve had such a rich history of success at the international level dating back to the early 1990s,” Gittens said. “I think that culture of winning and the closeness of those teams over the years just continues. Wheelchair basketball is a family, and it shows when you have that kind of support.”
McLachlan retired as a player in 2017 but hasn’t strayed from the game. She’s one of the very few female head coaches in professional wheelchair basketball (she runs the sidelines with RSV Lahn-Dill in the Bundesliga, historically one of the best club teams in the world) and in a funny turn of events, is also an assistant coach with Germany’s women’s wheelchair team.
In May, Young would have been in Toronto at the Pan Am Sports Centre preparing for the Paralympics with her teammates, but instead she’s living the farm life in Legal, Alta., and working out in her basement and local school gym (the benefits of living in a small town, she laughs).
Eight years on, that very first international tournament left an immeasurable impression.
She credits McLachlan, Harnock and current teammate Ouellet for helping to take her game to the next level.
As for the 2014 legacy, it continues with this next generation of players.
“I was lucky to see everything I did,” Young said. “To see the best of the best at that time.
“Now we’re striving to be the best. The 12 girls on our national team, we know what we’re capable of and we’re very confident going into Tokyo 2021 to play our best and hopefully come out with that gold medal we’ve all been hoping for.”