09/13/2011 06:39 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:21 EST

Canada's women's basketball veterans take one last shot at Olympics

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - When Teresa Gabriele tugged on the Canadian jersey at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, she was just 20 years old and had no way of knowing it would be her only Olympic appearance for the next 12 years.

Or worse, perhaps her one and only Olympic appearance.

Canada's women's basketball team is about to battle for a berth in the London Games, an Olympics that represents a final shot at playing on sport's biggest stage for Gabriele and fellow veterans Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn.

"It doesn't come around all the time, and I think the younger players need to know that," Gabriele said after Canada's team practice Tuesday. "I've been playing on the team for 14 years now and I've only been to one Olympics, and potentially this could have been my fourth.

"So, take these opportunities when they come and make the most of them, because they may never come again."

The 31-year-old native of Mission, B.C., is the only player remaining from that Sydney squad, and has stuck it out, she said, because of her love of the game and the lure of another Olympics.

"Towards the end of my career I would love to end on a positive note, end on an Olympics, I think many of the players who are here and are older would," Gabriele said. "That's our goal, to end on an Olympics is pretty much any athlete's dream."

The former Simon Fraser University star played professionally in Europe, but has effectively retired from all but the national team. She divides her time working for her parents' bread company on B.C.'s Lower Mainland, and training on her own.

Gabriele, who's also a certified personal trainer, is up by 4 a.m. daily to deliver bread to local stores, and then hits the gym alone most afternoons for three hours of weights, cardio, and on-court drills.

"I love training, I love being in the gym, I love doing that on my own," said the five-foot-five guard. "Every once in a while, you have to kick yourself in the butt, because you're not as motivated on some days and you don't have your teammates around to kick you in the butt and get you going. But I love doing it."

The Canadians are in their final phase of preparations at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus before the FIBA Americas Championships, Sept. 24 to Oct. 1 in Neiva, Colombia.

The tournament winner automatically qualifies for London, and head coach Allison McNeill believes a win could be Canada's for the taking.

"Absolutely, that's all we're focused on right now," McNeill said. "I can honestly say I'd never thought we could go win it, I thought we could go and be second, third, I thought if everything went well, we might win it, you always have a hope.

"But I think this team has the ability to win this tournament and win that spot. That's what we're going for."

McNeill said the team has matured and improved a great deal over the past several years, and finally has all the right pieces in place. That includes Thorburn, who went eight years without playing for Canada because of conflicts with her professional career and for personal reasons.

When the 29-year-old guard from Hamilton called McNeill, the coach happily welcomed her back into the fold.

"It was always in the back of my mind thinking, 'Jeez, I wish Sho would come back and play...'" McNeill said.

"As an athlete I don't think there's anything bigger than the Olympics, there really isn't," Thorburn said. "That's every athlete's dream, and I legitimately think we have a chance. I don't know if I would have come back if I really didn't believe that, and absolutely it's one of the huge reasons for me to come back and be a part of this team."

The five-foot-10 guard was selected seventh overall by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2006 WNBA draft, and played a season there before heading to Spain to play professionally.

Smith, 27, played several seasons in the WNBA for the Sacramento Monarchs, and also now plays in Spain. But her focus is set squarely on a berth in London.

"It's a dream, it's been a dream since I was a little kid and to come so close the last two rounds, for Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008), and to not get there, I think a lot of us older players have invested a whole lot of time and sacrificed a lot of things to make it happen this summer," Smith said.

McNeill, Canada's head coach since 2002, would love nothing better than to see it happen for the women who have been the backbone of her program for more than a decade.

"It's a funny thing, I have to get control of my emotions sometimes because I just want it so badly for them," McNeill said. "I think it should be a joyful time and moment, and whatever happens, happens. But I think I do really want them to achieve this."

Thorburn said if London isn't in the cards for Canada, she'll at least leave the game with no regrets.

"I've taken my professional career, my university career like that," she said. "Yeah, you're going to be upset, this is what you worked for, this is how hard you worked, and it's for that main goal. But once you're over the hurt you can say, 'I don't have any regrets, we gave it all we could.'

"Maybe I didn't hit that shot but I know I worked my butt off and I gave it my best chance, and that's what you think about when all is said and done."

The 12th-ranked Canadians open the tournament against 27th-ranked Mexico on Sept. 24, then play No. 6 Brazil and unranked Paraguay before wrapping up the preliminary round against No. 49 Jamaica. The top two teams in each of the two five-country groups advance to the quarter-finals.

Teams that finish second through fifth earn a spot in a second-chance Olympic qualifying tournament next summer.