Coming into the 2016 U SPORTS women’s basketball title game, there was plenty of history on the line.
On one side, you had Ryerson University.
Winners of 14 straight, the Rams had tied a program-best with 16 conference victories, earned their first-ever OUA Championship title, en route to becoming the first Ryerson team, in any sport, to appear in a national championship final.
On the other end was a perennial powerhouse, the University of Saskatchewan (USask).
The Huskies had just put together one of their most dominant seasons ever. They reeled off 16 straight wins to start the campaign, spent eight weeks in a row ranked No. 1 in the country, all before reaching their second national title game in program history, having lost just three contests all season.
With a first-ever Bronze Baby trophy on the line for both schools, the matchup was not only one of the biggest for either team, but also for its head coaches: Ryerson’s Carly Clarke and USask’s Lisa Thomaidis.
Amidst the excitement building with tip-off fast approaching at the Richard J. Currie Centre in Fredericton, N.B., Thomaidis walked over to her younger counterpart and shared something with the Rams bench boss that she still remembers to this day.
“We chatted briefly before the game,” recalled Clarke, who was then coaching in her fourth season at Ryerson. “I remember, [Thomaidis] acknowledged that we were the only two women head coaches of the eight teams in the tournament, and we were both in the finals.
“That was a cool acknowledgement.”
That moment on one of our country’s biggest basketball stages came nearly 15 years after the two shared a court for the first time ever, unbeknownst to them, at the 2001 Canada Summer Games in London, Ont.
Just six weeks removed from her prom, an 18-year-old Clarke arrived in London with high expectations as a player on Nova Scotia’s squad coached by Dr. Carolyn Savoy. Despite having sprained her ankle shortly before her high school graduation, the Halifax native managed to retain her spot on the team and travel to the Forest City for the 2001 Games.
“I think the whole [Canada] Games experience was pretty neat. That was my first setting like that: multi-sport games, Opening Ceremony, those are things that resonated [with me].
“I remember standing in the hallway before [our first] game, and we were playing B.C. Our confidence was pretty high going into the Canada Games, and then it got shattered very quickly,” laughed Clarke, as she recounted Nova Scotia’s opening 83-49 loss to eventual gold medallist British Columbia, a group that was led by future Olympian Kim Smith Gaucher.
Following that crushing defeat, it didn’t get much easier for Clarke and her Bluenoser teammates. Next on the docket was a date with an Ontario squad that also boasted a future Olympian in Shona Thorburn.
“[Team Ontario] came to Nova Scotia for an exhibition a couple of weeks before [London 2001], and we beat them, so we were feeling pretty good, and then they smashed us at the Games [87-58].
“So, what a freaking way to start the tournament,” recalled Clarke. “And I think the Saskatchewan game came after that.”
That Saskatchewan squad was coached by a 29-year-old Thomaidis, who came into the 2001 Canada Summer Games, fresh off guiding USask to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in 17 years in just her third season as the Huskies’ bench boss. Given her relative inexperience as a head coach prior to arriving in Saskatoon, Sask., Thomaidis was surprised to be chosen to lead her newfound province at London 2001.
“I’d been [Saskatchewan’s] provincial team coach right from the start. I don’t know how they decided on me when I first came to [USask] to be the provincial team head coach. It just kind of rolled into Canada Games.
“But the Canada Games were huge. I had never been as an athlete. It was my first multi-sport games experience, so it was a pretty big deal,” added Thomaidis, a native of Dundas, Ont. “I remember being so impressed with the quality of play. So many teams were so good, and there were so many great players that came through at the time.
“It certainly is a feather in your cap when you get a chance to coach at one of those Games.”
Having split their first two contests, Thomaidis’ Saskatchewan team narrowly edged Nova Scotia 69-63 to effectively knock them, and Clarke, out of contention for a medal, before Ontario handed the Wheat Province a similar fate in their fifth and final round-robin game.
Thus, both Thomaidis and Clarke ended up missing out on a podium finish in 2001, but the final result was rather insignificant when you weigh it against what the pair was able to take away from their Canada Games experience.
“Some of my closest friends to this day are teammates from those years,” said Clarke. “Two of my best friends are Katherine Quackenbush, who went on to be an All-Canadian [at Memorial University], and Sara Limpert, who was my roommate at Bishop’s [University].”
Meanwhile, for Thomaidis, five of her Saskatchewan players from the 2001 Games (Jill Stein, Shaina Swidrovich, Sharlene Cooper, Andrea Gislason and Catherine Lieffers) wound up playing for her at USask, and their shared experience in London only enhanced their connection in the years that followed.
“All five of those players I still have great relationships with. They’ve been life-long friends, and they continue to be around, and I love keeping tabs on them, and really [the 2001 Canada Summer Games] was the start of it, right? So it’s pretty cool to think that I’ve known them for almost 20 years now and in that capacity.”
London 2001 can also be credited with helping Clarke find her way into coaching. After a successful five-year playing career at Bishop’s University, where she became an academic All-Canadian, the sharpshooter from Halifax seemed to be at a crossroads in 2006, when her former Canada Games coach, Dr. Savoy, extended her an opportunity that would send her down the path that she still finds herself on today.
“I was graduating and just wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I had a degree in Biology. I was looking at getting into pharmaceuticals.
“And Carolyn Savoy, who was the coach at Dalhousie, called and asked if I wanted to come and be her assistant,” said Clarke, who ended up working on Dr. Savoy’s coaching staff for two seasons, before eventually securing her first U SPORTS head coaching gig with the University of Prince Edward Island in 2009.
“The opportunity to work with [Dr. Savoy] was pretty special. She was nearing the end of her career, and she was just very giving in allowing myself, and the other assistant at the time, to have a lot of control, to learn by doing, and lead a lot of scenarios.”
Similarly, Thomaidis received her first coaching break thanks to a mentor of her own. After two seasons of playing basketball at McMaster University, the forward from Highland Secondary School was thinking of calling it quits until another Canada Games alumna, Theresa Burns, arrived on campus as the program’s new head coach in 1992.
“I was terrible in my first couple of years [at McMaster]. I was uninspired,” claimed Thomaidis. “Probably the only reason I was on the team for my first two years was because I was 6-foot-2, I had some coordination, and I could shoot the ball. So I was the prototypical player who had ‘lots of potential’ but I didn’t really have a strong work ethic or didn’t have that vision of what to aspire to.
“And [Burns] really changed things around for me. She really lit a fire in me that inspired me to work harder than I ever thought I could, and become a better player than I ever thought I could be.
“That opened up a whole different world for me. So, she truly was an inspiration in terms of having that desire to become a coach.”
Not only did Thomaidis continue to play at McMaster for another three years, but under Burns’ guidance, she became a three-time OUA West All-Star, and once her playing career ended, her first coaching gig was working as an assistant for Burns at her alma mater. Looking back at it all, Thomaidis couldn’t help but point out the significance of having female role models like Burns and Dr. Savoy in order for people like herself and Clarke to succeed in the coaching roles that they now enjoy today.
“Both [Carly and I] made mention of the fact that we had female coaching role models growing up, [and that] was a huge part of us becoming coaches ourselves,” said Thomaidis, a two-time U SPORTS Coach of the Year.
“You have to have those role models, they have to be seen, and you have to see people who look like you in positions that maybe you didn’t think were possible to aspire to.”
In a lot ways, this continues to be true for Clarke, who aspires to attain the level of success that Thomaidis has enjoyed as both the head coach at USask and with the Canadian Senior Women’s National Team.
Having taken ownership of a Huskies’ program in 1998 that hadn’t topped five wins in over 15 years, Thomaidis has since turned USask into a perennial contender that has won two national titles and competed in 13 of the last 15 U SPORTS Final 8 tournaments. At the same time, in her work as head coach for the women’s national team, the 48-year-old has helped Canada reach a program-best fourth in the FIBA Women’s World Rankings.
“I remember when I was getting started at Ryerson [in 2012], in particular, admiring Lisa and the program that she had established at [USask],” recounted Clarke, who has led Ryerson to four Final 8 appearances over the last six seasons as their head coach. “I’ve always looked up to her, and what she’s been able to create there, and how she has been able to build a successful program from a pretty unsuccessful place, and the sustained success [at USask] is one of the most admirable things.
“[USask] always comes to our tournament [at Ryerson]. So, there’s just been these opportunities to connect, for our relationship to grow and develop, and I told [Lisa] this little bit already, but I was a little intimidated at the start to talk to her,” laughed Clarke.
Although they didn't formally meet at the Canada Games back in 2001, as Clarke highlighted, both her and Thomaidis have since gotten familiar with one another as the years have gone by. On top of their battles at the U SPORTS level, highlighted by USask’s 85-71 triumph over Ryerson in 2016 to secure the program’s first-ever national title, their paths eventually converged through Canada Basketball.
While Thomaidis worked as an assistant coach with the Senior Women's National Team for about 12 years, before becoming the team’s head coach in 2013, it was around that time that Clarke started to make a name for herself while running Canada’s cadette and junior women's national teams.
“I met Carly during my first Cadette National Team tryout in 2013 as she was the head coach,” said Bridget Carleton, who is now a member of the Senior Women’s National Team. “It was my first time representing Canada, my 16 year old self was quite nervous, and I vividly remember Carly being a calm but passionate presence. Right away I knew her confidence, patience and knowledge of the game was something that set her apart.”
During the seven years Clarke oversaw the cadette and junior women's national teams, her squads found the podium six times in FIBA Americas and World Championship events, including a historic showing at the 2017 FIBA U19 Women's Basketball World Cup, where Canada captured its first-ever medal there by placing third. Eventually, these types of accomplishments made it impossible for Canada Basketball to ignore her potential, and she was promoted in November 2017 to join Thomaidis’ coaching staff as an assistant coach on the Senior Women’s National Team.
“I think Carly’s success speaks for itself,” said Thomaidis. “I certainly had been following her for a while, before joining our senior team. I was super fortunate to have gotten to know her a little better prior to her joining our staff, that just put my mind a lot more at ease.
“I learn a ton from [Carly] and just appreciate the time that we get to spend together, that we get to talk basketball and learn together.”
“[Carly] knows how to give a player the confidence to be pushed outside of their comfort zone on and off the court,” added Carleton, who is also an alumna of the 2013 Canada Games. “Carly is extremely knowledgeable of all aspects of the game and has the ability to keep us fully engaged. She has been a great addition to our senior team.”
Although the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games have been postponed to 2021, both Thomaidis and Clarke remain confident about Canada’s chances at earning its first-ever Olympic medal in women’s basketball next summer. Ironic that this historic moment might take place almost 20 years to the day when their worlds would have collided for the first time at the London 2001 Canada Summer Games.
“As much as it is a springboard for success for athletes, I think the Canada Games is also a springboard for future coaching success,” claimed Thomaidis. “I think it really does open your eyes to, at that level, what it takes to be successful and the talent that’s out there, both on the athlete side and on the coaching side.”
And you don’t have to look beyond Clarke and Thomaidis to see why that’s true.
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