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HIGH ACHIEVERS: First things first as basketball’s Merissah Russell declines Olympic alternate invitation

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Merissah Russell. File photo

By Martin Cleary

OH, SO OLYMPIC CLOSE: About a month ago, Merissah Russell was asked by Canada Basketball if she would like to accompany the senior women’s team and travel to her first Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Russell, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Louisville, wasn’t named to the core team of 12 players, but was selected as one of four alternates. She would train with the team, but not play in the Olympics.

That was a tough question for Russell, who has been connected to Canada’s national program for the past seven years and would love nothing more than to see the best in the world live at the world’s best competition.

But the Capital Courts Academy/Cairine Wilson Secondary School grad declined the offer for two reasons, anticipating her full Olympic moment will come down the road. This time, she put university and her health and safety first.

“It would have been great to train with the team, go to Japan and be in the village,” Russell said in a phone interview Friday, after her daily summer training session with the University of Louisville Cardinals.

“I have a big responsibility here at Louisville. It’s a very competitive environment. I want the chance to show the coach I can play and that I have improved. It was in my best interest to come back here and train.”

Russell played in 20 games as a freshman for the Cardinals, who reached the Elite Eight at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament last March. She averaged 2.2 points and as many rebounds in the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season.

Japan’s fourth state of emergency because of the presence of the COVID-19 virus also was a factor in Russell’s decision to return to Louisville, where life is showing signs of more normalcy.

“That’s always a concern. It’s COVID. It is a big deal. No one wants COVID. That also was part of my decision,” she added. “I do appreciate playing for (head) coach Lisa Thomaidis. It was a hard decision.”

After six years of playing in Canada’s age-group program and attending the U19 (2019) and U17 (2018) World Cup tournaments and the U16 (2017) Americas competition, Thomaidis invited Russell to join the senior women’s team in 2020.

“I had an opportunity to talk to the head coach and because of COVID she wanted to add a couple of girls to the team to make it competitive,” Russell said. “It was interesting that she had me come to camp.”

That experience put Russell on Canada’s senior basketball team for the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup in San Juan, Puerto Rico in June. She played in four of the seven games, averaging almost 12 minutes, 4.3 points and 1.5 rebounds a game.

“The AmeriCup was amazing,” she added. “It was definitely different and we quarantined a lot. There were a lot of hard teams, but it was a great opportunity to play against great players.

“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play with those women. Unfortunately, we didn’t (win a) medal (finishing fourth).

One of Russell’s special moments at the training camp before the AmeriCup tournament was working with veteran Miranda Ayim of London, ON., who carried the Canadian flag with Nathan Hirayama during Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony.

“She’s a real cool player and person. She helped me at the camp. I saw her as an aunt or mother (figure). She had a calmer mindset and was relaxed. She said to slow down and let the game come to you,” Russell said.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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