Competitive spirit

Aubry finds winning formula on Bendigo basketball court

PICTURE Bendigo Spirit forward Chelsea Aubry in a tutu, pirouetting across the stage. Or performing jazz and tap routines before judges to the beat of the latest tune.

The Canadian import didn't grow up with a basketball always attached to her hand - at first, it was dancing competitions and soccer games that filled her calendar as a child.

"I think that's where I got my true competitive spirit from," she jokes about her dancing days.    

Aubry might have made a decent soccer player, too, though she says she was always much taller and a bit rougher than her team-mates, but everything changed the summer her mum enrolled her in a school holiday basketball camp at age 13.

"I wasn't very good, but I really loved the speed and diversity of it, how nothing was the same with each play. I just fell in love with the sport and wanted to do more to improve myself."

It was the beginning of a journey that has taken Aubry around the world, shooting hoops in far-flung corners of Eastern Europe, South America and now Australia.

She represented Canada at senior level for just over 10 years, including at two world championships and the 2012 London Olympics, then won a WNBL title with Bendigo Spirit last season in what was supposed to be her swansong as a professional player.

"I thought, what better way to finish than on those two highs (Olympics and WNBL win).

"I was a little burnt out from going back to back seasons, and thought I was ready for the next chapter of my life, so I took four months off and went home.

"When I came back to Bendigo, Bernie asked if I wanted to play again and I felt pretty fresh. I didn't know how I was going to feel without basketball in my life and, well, I'd missed it - so I signed up for another season."

Now the 29-year-old and her Spirit side are just one win away from securing consecutive championship victories.

I've been very fortunate to have found a place like Bendigo. It's definitely kept me playing longer. - Chelsea Aubry

It is a situation she is still coming to terms with, having played through long, often-painful rebuilding phases during her college days and at Team Canada.

"Last year, I told the girls how I'd never been on a team that was winning consistently and had a chance to take a championship - it was a new experience for me and so wonderful."

Aubry was raised in Kitchener, Ontario, a blue-collar city with German heritage, full of proud, hard-working people and famous for its annual Oktoberfest.

Older sister Shauna danced and was a star college track-and-field pentathlete, while younger brother Alex excelled at ice hockey, lacrosse, snowboarding and golf.

Aubry played junior basketball for the Waterloo Wildhawks club and Grand River Collegiate Institute high school teams, her ability rapidly growing to match her 188cm stature.

"My Wildhawks coach was Dave Hollinger and he really taught me the game - he had all these fancy tricks, but he taught us how to play defence properly, how to read screens, and how to read the game so when you are put in a situation, you know what to do.

"I credit a lot of my success to him because one of my strengths is understanding the game."

After finishing school, Aubry was heavily recruited by several US colleges but chose to go to the struggling University of Nebraska, which had a 6-20 record the year before she arrived.

By the time she graduated in international business and ethnic studies, Nebraska had made the NCAA college tournament for the first time in many years.

As a senior, Aubry was joined at the Huskers by a talented freshman named Kelsey Griffin and the two are now part of Spirit's formidable forward set-up.

Aubry's first professional season came playing at BSS Kosice, Slovakia, in 2008.

She loved living in such a beautiful part of the world but there were on-court challenges.

"I signed my contract and was so excited to be a professional basketballer, not thinking I was going to a country where no one spoke English, not even my coach.

"During time outs, I would have no clue what the coach was saying. I'd go back out on court and ask one of my team-mates what was said and she'd say, 'oh, it wasn't important’.

"The coach wrote x's and o's on the board and did a big ‘CA’ for Chelsea and I could figure those things out, but the rest of it..... It was quite an interesting experience."

Aubry made Canada's national junior team at 17 and went to the world university games the following year before forcing her way into the senior line-up.

She stayed there for a decade, experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

"Qualifying for the Olympics was my career highlight because it was such a huge physical and emotional battle to get there.

 "We made it on a last-second trick shot but we didn't care, we were so happy to get there.

"But there was a lot of trying and missing out. The worst of the worst was missing out on Beijing - we weren't good enough and we knew it but you always have that hope and dream. It was the lowest sporting moment of my life."

So devastating was that failed bid that Aubry seriously considered giving the game away.

But she pushed on for another four years and was thrilled to eventually become an Olympian - even though thieves spoiled the party during a post-Games vacation in Italy with Victorian-born partner Shane Lewis.

All their belongings - including much of Aubry's London memorabilia - were stolen from the boot of their car parked on the street while they toured the Vatican City.  

"It was heart-breaking - we went to the biggest police station in Rome but they claimed no one could speak English. My accreditation pass - the only thing I collect from all the games I go to - was taken, as was my certificate saying 'good job, you're an Olympian'.

"I'd picked out some of my favourite things from my Canadian uniform to bring back to Australia and they were gone, too."

Some items were replaced by Basketball Canada and the IOC, but not her accreditation or the souvenir pins Shane had spent two weeks collecting from other Olympic nations.

"I lost some things that weren't valuable, but were irreplaceable for me."

Aubry had never heard of Bendigo when she was approached by her agent about joining the Spirit in 2009 and only signed her contract a week before arriving here.

She had played a world qualifying match in the Amazon, flown home to Canada to pack and then headed Down Under, landing in Australia the day of her first match after delays at LA airport because of a visa mix-up.

But she says it has been "one of the best last-minute decisions I've ever made".

"I've been very fortunate to have found a place like Bendigo. It's definitely kept me playing longer - they offer such a great program and great people that you want to keep going.

"Spirit's style of play has been very complementary to my game and I think I've become a much better player since coming here, and more confident as well.

"All I want to do is help as much as I can, in any way I can, and I feel I have done that. It's been fun."

Aubry's parents, Rick and Shelley, recently returned home to Canada after visiting their daughter in the Goldfields city she has embraced on and off the court.

She has bought a house in Spring Gully, started her first full-time job outside of basketball working for PEAK Sport, and is in the process of obtaining permanent residency here.

"Yes, I have set down some roots," she laughs.

Still, she's not looking too far forward on the basketball front.

"It's definitely season by season now. You have days when you think you are done, but then there are moments when you wonder how you could ever give it up.

"It's been such a great ride, especially here in Bendigo, and it would be hard to give up the social side as well. I don't know - we'll finish this season and see what the future holds."

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