HAVANA (2016 FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament) - The current generation of Cuban women basketball players has not been to an Olympic Games before and this fact is not lost on the sport's aficionados on the Caribbean island.
The 2016 FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament (WOQT) in Nantes, France, will provide Cuba with a shot at redemption, as well as a chance to enter the pantheon of great and historic Cuban basketball teams. This is that moment.
This generation has Ineidis Casanova and Clenia Noblet - two players in the Brazilian women's national league - along with Oyanaisy Gelis and Yamara Amargo as its stars and most recognizable faces at the international level.
Amargo, the MVP of the 2013 FIBA Americas Women's Championship following Cuba's title triumph, and a member of the All-Star Five at last year's edition of the continental competition, is fully focused on claiming one of the five spots for Rio 2016 that will be in play at the WOQT, which will run 13-19 June.
The possibility of participating in the Olympics makes me emotional. It would be very important for basketball in our country. To represent Cuba on the biggest stage, there would be no higher honor. Qualifying out of this tournament [WOQT] would be our most important achievement. - Amargo
Last week's draw for the 12-team tournament saw Cuba end up in Group A with New Zealand and France.
"Everybody over here was expectant, waiting for the results of the draw. My first reaction is that it is a good group for us, even though at this level, one cannot underestimate the quality of any opponent," the 1.78m forward said.
Both [New Zealand and France] are very good teams but we really believe we can compete with them. Our identity and style of play is strong and it will be a matter of establishing it early and stay consistent throughout. - Amargo
In the WOQT, the top two teams from each group advance to the Quarter-Finals where the first-place team of Group A plays the second-place team of Group B and vice-versa. The same applies to Groups C and D. The winners of the Quarter-Finals will qualify for the Olympics while the losers will play Classification Games until the fifth-place is determined. That team will earn the last Olympic spot.
Amargo has been in the national team since 2004 and has a career average of 12.2 points per game. She is currently battling back from a knee injury that sidelined her for the club season.
"My focus is on rehabbing my knee and slowly get back into things in order to be fully ready for the national team," she said. "Unfortunately, I cannot play right now in our national league, but there's a bigger goal and I will be ready for the summer."
The sweet-shooting forward has had a lot of big games with Cuba over the years. She was the 2015 FIBA Americas Women's Championship leading scorer at 15.7ppg.
"I’ve always felt fortunate to be a part of the Cuban sporting system," Amargo said. "We have full support from the government and our family to be successful in this game that we love. And it shows on the court. We love playing basketball.
"Individually it has really helped my development to have grown within a system that has such high expectations. The Cuban sporting model is so globally transcendental that we take part in exchange of ideas with other models from countries around the world. This has been a big influence on why our women's team has continued to be elite.
"And now we have started to play for other clubs around the world. This can only help us grow even more. I'm so excited for our future."