Stewart & Vanderwal return for GB

November 11, 2021
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    Players applaud Azania Stewart after her final game pre-retirementAzania Stewart retired in 2018 before returning in early 2021

    EuroBasket Women 2023 Qualifying
    Venue: National Basketball Performance Centre, Manchester Date: Thursday, 11 November Time: 19:30 GMT
    Coverage: Live on BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website and app.

    The return of two centurions has been a welcome boost for Great Britain's women's basketball team.

    After lengthy spells out of the game, and for very different reasons, London Olympians Azania Stewart and Rachael Vanderwal are back.

    The past two years have been a challenge for the squad, missing out on qualification for the Tokyo Olympics before the shock of failing to qualify for EuroBasket 2021.

    But the returning Stewart and Vanderwal are ready to spearhead GB back to the highs, starting with this week's opening EuroBasket 2023 qualifiers.

    Centre Stewart never thought there would be a return. The 32-year-old retired from the sport exactly three years ago, content with her decision and excited for the future.

    "It's been a long journey, with the journey giving me a lovely break to really see what I want, and with the pandemic, basketball really came back into my life. I'm happy to be back," she tells BBC Sport.

    "I never thought I would come back. I was really happy with my decision. Three years ago, I had 101 caps, I'd won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, so it was the cherry on top."

    But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Stewart drifted back into the game. Appointed the GB squad's Covid officer, she would take part in training for fun, until it became serious again.

    A team-mate notified the Leicester Riders that Stewart was "in good shape", and the comeback was on. She played for the Riders before joining fellow WBBL side the London Lions.

    "It would be kind of rude to play in a domestic league and not come back and play for my country," she says.

    "My body really loved me for coming back. But I am a better player, I think my IQ has got better, the game has slowed down for me, and my position is different now.

    "I had forgotten how much I love to compete, and I really do love basketball, so it was really easy for me to transition back."

    From 'major low' to 'positive glasses'

    Rachael Vanderwal playing for Great BritainRachael Vanderwal made her senior debut for GB in 2010

    For Vanderwal, a return to the GB camp was for so long the light at the end of the tunnel. Just days after GB missed out on Olympic qualification in February 2020, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) on her return to her club in Belgium.

    The timing, as it turned out, worked well for the point guard. The start of the pandemic meant Canada-born Vanderwal could return to her homeland and have surgery.

    "It was probably one of the hardest weeks mentally. After losing the qualifiers, going back to my club and tearing my ACL in the next game, I was on a major, major low," the 38-year-old says.

    "Mentally, it took time, but I was able to be with friends and family and they were there for me, they rallied around me, so it worked out for the best.

    "I had a goal in mind to be back on court with the GB team. That was always in the back of my head, so I rehabbed every single day, stayed positive and was super patient.

    "I'm a bit on the older side so I had to be patient with it."

    As the team prepares for Thursday's opening qualifier against Greece in Manchester, followed by a trip to Estonia on Sunday, Vanderwal and Stewart are veterans in a team that welcomes debutants Shanice Beckford-Norton and Holly Winterburn into the final 14 for the first time.

    Having reached the semi-finals at EuroBasket 2019 before the disappointments that followed in 2020 and 2021, Vanderwal insists the confidence in the camp has never wavered.

    "We always have a positive environment in camp, we have this motto of 'positive glasses' from our head coach. No matter on the court, off the court, we are always positive," she says.

    "We know we are going to have some tough games, Greece are a really tough opponent, we've played them a lot of times before, so we're just going to have to play our game and play the GB way.

    "We want to get back to playing with the best in the world. We know that we can, we have the talent, and we have to show it."

    For Stewart, while new faces may have appeared since her last appearance in 2018, this week's qualifiers provide the perfect opportunity for the squad to write a new chapter in their story.

    "It's a young squad, and it's up-and-coming but with a few pieces of veteran leadership," she says.

    "We've got the games coming up, so it's the first step to really put in this action and this new team on the floor. It's going to be good for us, but it's a long process."

    She adds: "We've proven ourselves over the years. We know we're just there, but with those disappointments we've learned as a team.

    "Great Britain is such a young country in the basketball world. We really had to learn those lessons. It does suck that we missed out on the Olympics, but they're all learning lessons, so to get ourselves going again in this tournament will be a great thing for us."

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