‘I had a dream. That one day… I’d be representing my country at the Olympics.’ Most athletes – if not all – have that same dream. Aya Traoré has waited a long time to accomplish it; and next summer, the captain of Senegalese women’s national basketball team will be in Rio battling it out.

Her team got their lucky ticket by winning the AfroBasket Women’s championship this October.

It was their 11th AfroBasket Women’s title and Traoré was proud of their achievement. ‘We didn’t start the way we wanted. But we just got stronger during the tournament. And at the end of the day, we won! We played our best basketball when we needed. It’s a real pride for me, for us.’

Who would have guessed Senegal was going to hold the trophy at the end of the tournament? Most of the people lost faith in Traoré’s team after they were beaten twice in the qualifying round. But the ‘Lionnes’ responded the best way in the quarter-final when they faced Mali. Senegal didn’t allow Mali to score in the third quarter. In semi-finals, Senegal showed that were indeed the better team beating Angola in a close game, winning by only two points (56-54) to get to final. Senegal finished the tournament in style; they definitively beat the host Cameroon (81-66).

‘We started the competition with a loss. A lot of negative things had been said; a lot of criticism had been given. But we never gave up.’

‘The gym was crowded; people were cheering for their team Cameroon, which is a very good team. We knew that the best way to win was to put a wide gap at the beginning of the game. If we had tied… I mean, you never know, with the public, the referees… It could have been complicated. Best thing to do was to win with a wide gap. And we were in a good rhythm with our previous games against Mali and Angola. We gave it everything we had as a team. And we won.’

Aya is ready to play ball.
Aya Traoré receives her MVP trophy from the FIBA Africa President.

I could tell over the phone that Aya Traoré had a big smile on face. During the AfroBasket tournament, Aya excelled. When she celebrated with her team at the end of the final game, she received the MVP (most valuable player) award. Just like in 2009.

‘The only difference between 2015 and 2009 is that in 2009, we won everything. We were undefeated. This year, things were tough. We started the competition with a loss. A lot of negative things had been said; a lot of criticism had been given. But we never gave up. We believed in ourselves. People didn’t expect us. But we deserved it because we fought for it, with all our hearts.’

The Senegalese women’s national team has come a long way. Everything started back in May in Romania at their first training camp. The head coach Moustapha Gaye, who won the AfroBasket women’s tournament in 2009, was back in business after four years away from the game. One month later, Aya Traoré and rest of the team met in Dakar where they prepared by competing in friendly games.

‘At the beginning, it was quite difficult because we hadn’t seen each other for two years, since 2013. We had a new head coach, even if everybody knew him. We had to start our routine all over again.’ But the team’s biggest strength lies in the loyalty of their players. Six of them have played with the national team for over five years. They stuck together and have been through a lot together. That’s how you build a team. By relying on a strong foundation, with players who answer the call year after year.

Oumou Khairy Thiam is pretty happy about her team's eventual victory.

‘When I was young, I dreamt for such a long time that I would represent my national team. So when you have the opportunity to do it, you can’t turn it down. Young people want to do it and it’s our duty to lead by example,’ explains the captain of Senegal.

The ‘Lionnes’ are going to try to put Senegalese and African basketball on the map.

Hard work pays off. After 11 years of playing with the senior national team (she competed in the World Championships in 2006), Aya Traoré will make her first appearance at the Olympics. ‘Well, I was in Sydney in 2000 but it was for a youth camp. Next year, it would be my first time as an athlete. And I’m going with my team. And it’s not an invitation or a wild card. We won our ticket; we deserved our place.’

The Olympics is where basketball is played at the highest level. It is a tough competition, which the USA dominates year after year. In Sydney in 2000, Senegal lost all of their five games. Although this time, the ‘Lionnes’ are willing to take their chance to put Senegalese and African basketball on the map. In July 2016, Aya Traoré will turn 33. And she plans to keep playing, even after Rio: ‘As long as I can play at this level and they want me, I’ll stay.’

An 11th AfroBasket title? Naturally.

Over the past 47 years, Senegal has won 11 gold medals, 5 silver medals and 3 bronze medals. Senegal is the most successful African nation in women’s basketball. While Cameroonian players battle to win prizes, Aya Traore and her teammates have always managed to avoid any financial controversy – something which happens frequently in African sport.

‘The government has always been legit. And from our side – I mean the team – we always thought that we don’t have to worry about that; we just have to go out and play; do our best. The point is to stay focus on your game.’

Win the African Cup; go to the Olympics… It’s not just about personal satisfaction for Aya and her teammates. Their dedication is also part of giving back to the community and their country. Thanks to their triumph in Yaoundé, the team got to meet Macky Sall. The president of Senegal offered to the players a house and a prize.

But the president also promised to build a basketball arena worthy of the title. He promised an arena, which will meet FIBA’s criteria in order to host a continental competition; an arena, which will take Senegal to a new stage.

‘It’s gonna motivate everybody. People to come see us play. There will be coaches and technical staff to keep on educating our young players. Those young players will keep on working hard to maybe play one day in this arena. This arena that the President promised to us, it’s something Senegal has been waiting for so long.’

The beginning of a new era for Senegal? They’re on the right path.

And the winner is... Senegal!

Afrobasket 2015 champions were Oumou Khairy Thiam, Aya Traoré, Tening Sabelle Diata, Fatou Dieng, Mame Diodio Diouf, Ndeye Sène, Astou Traoré, Maimouna Diarra, Mame Marie Sy Diop, Oumou Kalsoum Touré, Ramata Daou and Bineta Diouf.