The French women’s basketball team’s small forward is still not over the enormous frustration of taking fourth place at the 2016 Games in Rio, and is looking forward to returning to the great Olympic stage, with another year to prepare and aim for the stars in 2021 in Tokyo.
Valériane Ayayi, wife of Serbian basketball player Filip Vukosavljević, comes from a Bordeaux family where her sport is king. The French team’s small forward is the elder sister of siblings Joël, who plays for the Bulldogs at Gonzaga University in the American university NCAA championship; Gérald, who was signed up by French Pro A club Pau-Orthez at 17; and his twin sister Laure, who is also planning a career in basketball.
She began her professional career with the Basket Landes club in 2012, and became an international player the following year at the age of 19. The best up-and-coming player at the national championships in 2014 and champion of France with Montpellier in 2016, Ayayi played at her first Olympic Games with “Les Bleues” in Rio that same year. “It really was a great experience overall,” she says.
The frustration of fourth place
On court in Rio’s Youth Arena, the French women’s team finished second in their group in the first round; beat Canada in the quarter-finals; were beaten in the semi-finals by the Americans; and lost the bronze medal match to Serbia, thus finishing fourth.
“From a sporting point of view, finishing just off the podium was hugely frustrating, but it was a great experience for me. All athletes dream of playing at the Olympics; I was able to do that; and I hope to play at more! In the enormous canteen at the Village, we met everyone, from Simone Biles to none other than Manu Ginobili, one for us basketball players, and it’s amazing because you realise that you are part of this big family of athletes who are all taking part in the Olympics. It’s an honour to be able to say that you are representing your country at such a wonderful event.”
In Rio, nobody thought much of the French women’s basketball team’s chances after the last-minute withdrawal of their point guard, Céline Dumerc. However, they surprised themselves with a string of good results, until their two defeats, in the semi-finals against the USA (67-86), and then in the bronze medal match against Serbia (63-70). “I don’t know what more we could have done to reach the podium, I was so frustrated to miss out on that amazing moment. To this day it is still hugely frustrating for me, which is why I’ve been eagerly awaiting being able to get back to the Olympics and move on, but that will have to wait.”
A ticket to the Tokyo Games won on home turf
With the French team she was a two-time European runner-up, in 2017 and 2019, before her ticket to the Tokyo Games was confirmed at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) held in February 2020 in Bourges. “I think the fact that this OQT was played at home was fundamental to our success,” she says, explaining that their first win against Australia kick-started the home team’s campaign, allowing them to “ride this wave” and go on to beat Brazil and Puerto Rico. “That was a wonderful moment, when we were back together as a team, and we can't wait to be able to do it again together,” she said after the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything on its head.
A USK Prague player since 2018 in the Czech championship and European league, Ayayi managed to get to her parents-in-law’s home in Serbia’s capital at the last minute when lockdown began. “I went through four weeks of complete isolation here in Belgrade with my husband Filip, without going out. At first it was fine, but then I had a low, because going from a season of travelling around Europe, going out, training with girlfriends, eating out, etc., to suddenly finding ourselves locked up 24 hours a day, was pretty difficult. I also had to structure my time and train as much as possible.”
“And then, over the last three weeks, I felt more settled. I took time for myself, and I’ve managed to take the positives from it. I’m happy with what I’ve got out of it. I was able to think about the things that inspire and excite me. I devoted myself to my second project that I do alongside basketball, my small image and style fashion consultancy business. I took time to reconnect with myself and think about where I wanted to go. My sports career is still the priority. My experience as an elite athlete has given me many things, and I’m trying to share all of that through my passion for fashion.”
A delay to relaunching the assault on gold
During isolation, Ayayi decided to sign up with Basket Landes, her former club not far from her family in Bordeaux, and return to France with training for the Olympic Games in mind. She also learned that the Tokyo Games would be postponed for a year. “My initial feelings were mixed, but of course it was much more important to manage the health situation than to think about the Olympics, so I totally accepted and understood the postponement. I was just frustrated as an athlete because we’re competitors and we’ve been preparing for this event for four years. Now that I have been able to put things into perspective, I tell myself that it means we have another year to improve as a team. We had a good OQT, and we’re going to be able to build on that, with more time to devote to it. Focusing on ourselves to move forward as a team, whether as people or athletes, I think is very important. We’ve gone back to a pre-Olympic year, where we work and take care of our bodies so that we’re ready for Tokyo.”
In fact, two competitions will come consecutively, Euro 2021 in France and Spain, which continues until the end of June, before the Olympic Games get underway in July. “I think that we should use the Euro as a launch pad to the Olympics, get a great result and arrive in Tokyo ready to dominate.”
To sum it up: “In 2021, we want to win! We have to give ourselves the means to achieve our goals. But we have to set them higher. We have a strong team and we are proving that. It’s up to us to put in place whatever it takes, both on and off the court, to finally win the gold medal we’ve been after for such a long time. To do that, we'll probably have to beat the Americans, and I think they can be beaten. I’m not saying we can dominate them 10 times in 10 games, but we have a chance if we’re physically ready. We are one of the teams that can compete with them physically. It’s up to us to be ready and prepare to win and dethrone them.”
In their WhatsApp group, the French internationals have been communicating non-stop with each other and with their coach, Valérie Garnier. They have also continued to have their health monitored and take part in video conferences with their federation. In addition, Ayayi-Vukosavljević believes that her room for improvement is still significant: “I’m not a girl anymore, but I still have a few years ahead of me, so I can improve in all aspects of my game. I have gained experience, it is up to me to show that in my game. I discussed it recently with my Basket Landes coach, and I can still progress in terms of my vision of the game, my shooting, my leadership and distance... Basketball is such a complete sport that it would be difficult to say: ‘I’m only progressing in this one area.’ That’s what I like about sports that are as complete as this one: you work on everything, and you make overall progress. All you have to do is give yourself the means, then you have to work. I still have some room for improvement. I’m still highly motivated.”
She also explains that, if she had to choose a role model, it would not be someone from her sport, but rather a well-known, four-time Olympic champion tennis player: “Serena Williams, a mother, an athlete, a woman, an entrepreneur, she is my role model in terms of personal and professional success.”