Belgian basketball star Ann Wauters' Olympic dream was a long time coming

July 27, 2021

More than 10,000 athletes compete in the summer Olympics. There are gold medalists and athletes who'll never get anywhere near the podium. There are global superstars and athletes who soon will be, all rubbing shoulders with competitors from countries that they've never heard of.

There will be veterans of the greatest sports show on earth and debutants, men and women, who've been trying their whole lives to say that they are an Olympian.
Belgium's 40-year-old basketball player Ann Wauters falls into the latter category. Once the first-overall pick in the WNBA draft, a WNBA all-star in 2005 and champion in 2016, and someone who boasts a glittering resume of success with club teams in three different continents, neither she nor her country had ever qualified for the games -- until now.
    Ask her about it and she'll describe it with such infectious joy that you might even feel that you qualified for the Games, yourself.
      "It was a roller coaster of emotions," Wauters told CNN Sport via video link from Brussels before the Olympics, describing the moment that Belgium beat Sweden and punched the team's ticket to Tokyo.
      "I remember the final call of the game; we were just jumping on each other, ecstatic."
      Speaking more than a year after that moment, her broad smile still conveys the intense feeling of pride and joy: "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 in the quiet moments, away from the pandemonium of the arena, where 6000 fans celebrated their achievement together, she'd still 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!'"

      At the age of 19, in what was the league's fourth season, Wauters was chosen as the first pick in the draft and signed to the Cleveland Rockers.
      She was already playing professionally in France and drove to a television studio in Brussels to provide live reaction once her sporting fate had been determined
      Wauters, who didn't have an agent before then, recalled: "I remember that this agent was telling me, 'Your life is going to change now, like dramatically!'
      "Then, when I heard my name called out as the first pick, I was so surprised. I really didn't know what to say."
      Wauters lights up at the memory, beaming as she recalls her own response to the news: "I was just like, I kind of fell out of the sky; you know, like, 'Oh, really? I can go and play, what, in 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 proud of the trophies I've won and the titles and the championships," she said.
      "But more so it's what I've learned, to be on different kinds of teams and different kinds of cultures, playing with people of different backgrounds."

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