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!’”
‘The one thing that I really want’
After a long career, the Olympics will be Wauters’ last hurrah.
“This is the one thing that I really, really want. I remember my son coming out and hugging me,” she said, “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 global pandemic meant that a couple more months would become another year, but Wauters hadn’t waited this long to give up on her biggest dream now.
Before she discovered basketball at the age of 12, the 6-foot-4 Wauters confesses to being something of a misfit. She told 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 said.
“It [basketball] really helped me a lot in becoming more confident and fitting in.”
At the time, basketball wasn’t exactly the most popular sport in Belgium; coach Philip Mestdagh recalls a landscape dominated by soccer and cycling, telling CNN that the newspapers would feature “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 diet of Michael Jordan and the best of the early-1990s NBA action, her focus turned to the US and the newly-formed WNBA.
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.”
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 are really sure about themselves, character we don’t really have in our country. But we cannot be the underdog anymore.”
‘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 still a pretty quiet person,” she explained to CNN. “I was just hiding. She said ‘How are you?’ I said ‘good’ and probably ran away!”
Wauters had a maternal way about her, but Meesseman would soon learn that there was more to it than that.
“I didn’t even realize how big it could get back then. I could feel they were all on a mission; she was really 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 bit of a cliché,” said Wauters, “but representing your country is a little bit different to playing for a club team. It’s so much bigger.”
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 “they also 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 would love that we – as a team – fully enjoy the experience,” she explained. “That doesn’t mean we are going on holiday; that doesn’t mean we’re not ambitious, but sometimes you can be so focused on your goals that you don’t enjoy it enough.
“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 game. And whatever happens, this giant of Belgian sport will be going out on a high.