On the morning ahead of making her 100th international appearance, Rachael Vanderwal posted a then-and-now photo looking back at her debut.

Great Britain’s latest Centurion, thanks to good genes, consistent performances and a splash of healthy living, still possesses the same youthful gait and vibrant bustle that she had when earning cap number one back in 2010.

In between has unfolded a journey she never remotely foresaw. “A crazy ride,” she declared. And then some.

The shooting guard – two weeks and three days short of her 36th birthday – saw her milestone, alas, marked with a heavy 87-45 reverse to Sweden in the Slovenian city of Lasko, a second defeat in two games for her side in their build-up to the Women’s EuroBasket in Riga.

Vanderwal had only four points as GB were out-scored 47-23 in the middle two quarters by the Swedes, who surged clear with a 17-0 run and profited from torrid shooting from Chema Buceta’s side who converted just 6-22 rom three-point range in trailing by as much as 45.

The Spaniard was one of many to pay tribute to his Canadian-born guard. “Great player, great person, outstanding team mate.” Otherwise, he had overseen GB’s largest loss since a 104-36 capitulation to Bulgaria in 1988. One to forget and move swiftly on. Game Stats

Truth is not only did Vanderwal never expect to play on the international stage. The kid who grew up with dreams of becoming a figure skater in her native Ontario, had no intentions of pirouetting back to playing at all once she’d polished off her collegiate stint at Boston University.

By chance, the brother of her coach at the Eagles, Cathy Inglese, had done a tour of duty as a semi-pro in the Irish Superleague. “I know a few people in Ireland,” she told her. “You can go study. You can go work and maybe play if you want to keep playing.”

“So I thought ‘sure’”, Vanderwal recounts. “I’d never really been to Ireland before. So it was an easy decision for me. I ended up studying my first year there and playing. I loved it. One thing led to another. I kept continuing my degree for another year. I went into teaching part-time. Eventually, I got a full-time PE teacher job an all-girls secondary school in Cork. It was perfect.

“I was training Tuesdays and Thursdays and playing at the weekend. I had a lot of time on my hands. With my teaching degree, I thought it was perfect – earning some money there. It fitted really well and I loved the lifestyle.”

Averaging 22 points per game for the University of Limerick Eagles, then the Irish champions, saw British Basketball take an interest. She qualified for Britain through her Liverpool-born Mum Miriam. Reaching out was undertaken. A camp invite, then a call-up, came her way.

Even through the London 2012 Olympics, when Vanderwal, her omnipresent headband and that tidy jump shot were well-established in the national side, she had still scheduled her return to school to maintain this schizophrenic existence.

“But then,” she admits, “there came a time when I wanted more from basketball.” An agent was sought. A contract found with Liga Femenina side Gernika. A plunge taken. “I was 30 when I came to Spain. I didn’t know how my body would hold up.”

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Pretty well, as it happened. If not for that gamble, then Vanderwal might still be a weekend warrior of the parquet rather than earning a modest salary for a daily grind she adores. “I just had to play basketball every day,” she recalls with evident glee.

“I didn’t have to get up and deal with teenage girls … I thought ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’ Ireland was so joyous that it remains an opportunity relished. Had she emigrated sooner, she adds, “I don’t know if I could have improved as a player even more, but no regrets.”

Vanderwal still headbanded in 2011

100 caps on, another major tournament beckons at FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 later this month. During her near-decade of service, the second round has been the glass ceiling. GB require top six to earn spots in next year’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Miss out and it appears inevitable that it would bring some changing of the generational guard.

Should the side beat the odds and reach Tokyo 2020, Vanderwal – who returned to Gernika last season – would be 37 then. No matter that she is as enthused and sprightly as ever, the buzzer of the fourth quarter of her career is in sight.

“I’ve started to think about it for sure, this year and last year,” she says. “I’m definitely getting older. I completed the FIBA Time Out programme and that was interesting for me personally, giving me a different way to look at basketball, rather than as a player or as a coach. Looking at how events are set up and run, all the things that go into running a basketball club.

“It’s really opened my eyes to the other side of it and hit something where I go ‘this could be interesting as a career path’. It’s going me thinking what I’m going to do whether it be teaching, coaching or going into a different path. It’s scary to think of it though.”

At some point, she would like to spent more time with a beloved nephew and niece back in Ontario or have the leeway to re-route. Yet Vanderwal – who has been in a relationship with GB team-mate Eilidh Simpson for the past two years – has savoured this unexpected voyage so much that there is little need to fix its last destination.

“While the body is still good, you have to play for as long as you can,” she says. “But other things come into it now. Once you’re with someone in a relationship. You’ve your family. It all plays a part. There’s only so much sacrifice you want to make and you might want to do other things.”

More crazy rides surely included, now and again.


Listen to the full MVP Cast with Rachael Vanderwal below or subscribe via your podcast provider.

Photo: Mansoor Ahmed

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