By Charlie Pinkerton
Capital Courts alumna Merissah Russell’s freshman season with Louisville’s basketball team came to an end just two weeks ago when the Cardinals were eliminated from the women’s March Madness tournament by Stanford, the eventual tournament champions.
Russell’s one of the most highly-touted basketball prospects ever to come out of Ottawa and, at 19 years old, is already a past member of Canada’s national team, having debuted with the senior women more than three years ago.
Sports Pages Editor Charlie Pinkerton recently spoke to Russell for a story that will be featured in next week’s newspaper, but the interview also covered her first season of NCAA play, the complications of the pandemic, and the women’s weight room controversy. Here’s that part of the conversation (edited and condensed for clarity).
Charlie Pinkerton: Being able to play in March Madness isn’t something that a lot of Canadians ever get to do. Was that a surreal experience, or how was it for you?
Merissah Russell: Yeah, it was definitely a surreal experience. Obviously it was different, being in a bubble because of COVID, but it was amazing. The caliber of players from team No. 1 to team No. 64 is crazy. Just being in that tournament and how prestigious it is as the highest tournament in college basketball is unreal.
Having to play without much time to scout but still having to show up and play and if you lose you go home — it’s cut-throat. It’s a crazy experience and being able to do that with all my teammates and see players like All American (senior Louisville guard) Dana Evans go through that and dominate is crazy.
CP: I’ve got to ask you about the women’s “weight room” incident. Was that something you were following online? Did you show up to an empty training facility? Or how did you experience that?
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MR: Our practices were in a convention centre, which was separated by curtains. So when we walked in the first day I just saw this little pyramid of like six weights — three on each side — and our coach jokingly said, “This is our weight room guys. Don’t knock anything over.”
There was a pile of like eight to 12 yoga mats, and we all just kind of chuckled. It was crazy that they thought it was sufficient enough for a weight room.
Luckily our trainer actually brought some equipment, so the first time we worked out was actually in our hotel. After Oregon’s Sedona Prince came out with her opinion on it, which was basically all women’s players opinions on it, the NCAA changed the setup.
So it actually took them one day to add a huge weight room facility — with a couple of benches, a lot more dumbbells, so we were able to work out actually for real. It was pretty cool that they did that so fast, but also unfortunate that it took them only 24 hours to figure it out — because why was it an issue in the first place? But it just goes to show the power of social media.
CP: I read in another interview that you didn’t get the playing time you had wanted, heading into this year. Why didn’t things necessarily go as you might have thought in terms of getting on the floor this season?
MR: I think that just the first year of college was like something I’ve never experienced before. My coaches challenged me to get in the best shape I can. I’ve been privileged to learn from a lot of girls that have gone through the four year process — who struggled in their freshman year like I did — and were able to spend their four years in college and prevail in their junior and senior years.
Because I played limited minutes, I did extra workouts on game days after games, and I did extra workouts after practice. Now I know for next year what I have to do. I’m thankful for this year and confident in my ability to train in the offseason and come back stronger.
CP: What were some of your highs from this season?
MR: I think the best part is just the story of resiliency; just being with a group of girls who’ve seen each other every day for the past 10 months, haven’t gotten fed up with each other, and have pushed each other to be the best we can and finish in that Elite Eight.
We’ve had different obstacles, including COVID shutdowns, but we pushed through. And just being able to play in the ACC and the NCAA tournaments and celebrate the milestone of finishing a season during a pandemic was really a shining moment of the year.
CP: What are your plans for the off-season?
MR: I’m back in Ottawa now and I’m just waiting to finish my quarantine to pick up training. I’m going to train everyday — doing weightlifting, skills on the court, things like that — so I’m ready to come back to Louisville and be impactful next year.
CP: Will you be involved with Team Canada at all this summer?
MR: Ya, so we have a training camp at the end of May, for which I’ll fly out to Edmonton to try out for that team and then there’s and AmeriCup in, I think, June and then, obviously, there’s the Olympics coming up.
CP: So could you be going to the Olympics?
MR: I really hope so. I’m going to try my hardest at the try outs and hopefully get a spot. That’s what I’m training for.
This interview excerpt was first published in the Saturday Sports Pages. Here’s where you can sign up to receive our biweekly newsletter that’ll make sure you’re always kept up to date with the latest happenings in Ottawa’s sports scene.