On 9 February 2020, in the small coastal city of Ostend, the Belgium women's national basketball team made history.
They qualified for their first Olympic Games.
After the buzzer sounded following Belgium's 61-53 victory over Sweden in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, signalling Belgium's qualification for Tokyo 2020, it marked the culmination of an incredible transformation for the women's team. Once unranked, the Belgian Cats (as they are affectionately known) had clawed their way up from the depths of international women's basketball to the lofty heights of the Olympic Games.
Now, Belgium is the No.6 team in the world and one of the favourites to win the Women's EuroBasket tournament in June.
To help explain the incredible evolution of the women's team, Olympics.com spoke to WNBA, EuroLeague and Belgium star Emma Meesseman.
Emma Meesseman: Belgium's star
While the Cats' transformation from international stepping stones to podium challengers can't be attributed to a single player, it would be a mistake to overlook the impact that Emma Meesseman has had on the evolution of Belgian basketball.
At just 28, Meesseman – who is partially deaf and plays with hearing aids – has already built up an outstanding portfolio of career accolades that most players can only dream of achieving.
- 2019 WNBA champion and Finals MVP
- 2015 WNBA All-Star
- Four-time EuroLeague champion, 2018 EuroLeague Final Four MVP
- 2011 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championship MVP
- 2011 FIBA Europe Young Women's Player of the Year
- 2011 Belgian League champion and championship MVP
- Two-time Belgian Player of the Year
- Six-time Russian National League champion
- 2017 Russian Cup winner
When asked about which achievement she's most proud of, Meesseman understandably has a hard time picking just one.
"I'm pretty much proud about everything. Playing for the national team, that's always extra special because I'm playing with the people I grew up with," said Meesseman. "We've known each other for a long time, and we've had the same dreams for a long time, but everything we've [Belgium] done up until now was always a first.
"Our first European championship, we won bronze – that was a first. Playing at the World Championships? First time. Qualifying for the Olympics? First time. So I'm not going to say that this moment [qualifying for Tokyo 2020] is the biggest one, but I still remember how it felt when we qualified, it still feels as special and as emotional today."
Meesseman was born and raised in Ypres, and started her club career when she was 16. Her mother, Sonja Tankrey, is a former player herself, and was named the Belgian Women's Basketball Player of the Year in 1983. Despite her impressive heritage, Meesseman says that her mother never pushed her to play basketball.
"The main thing for me and my brother was to play a sport. But as I grew up, I think my talent for basketball began to show more and more, so it was an easy choice for me to become a basketball player. But it was not because my mom pushed me to play basketball – she always let me have a choice. And then, after a while, I just wanted to be better than my mom!"
In 2013, after impressing in league and EuroCup play in Belgium and France, Meesseman was selected 19th overall by the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Draft. But Meesseman was initially apprehensive about the prospect of moving to the United States.
"I had never seen a WNBA game. I knew some players, but it [ the WNBA] was still so far away from me," Meesseman recalls.
"I wasn't sure I was going to go – I was 19 at the time, and kind of scared."
But after a phone call from Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault, Meesseman decided to take a leap of faith.
"I didn't believe I was going to make it [in the WNBA] in the beginning. It was a big adjustment, but I realised pretty quickly they [the Mystics] picked me for my style, for the way I play. So I decided to keep that and not change the way I play the game."
Those decisions have paid off for Meesseman, who was selected to the WNBA All-Star game in 2015 and won a championship with the Mystics in 2019 (the first in franchise history), where she was also named Finals MVP.
Meesseman, like other top WNBA players, also plays in Europe during the WNBA off-season, where she's experienced tremendous success. As a member of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the 1.93m (6'4) power forward won the Russian National League championship in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, as well as the EuroLeague in 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2021.
As Meesseman has continued to win titles and accolades in the WNBA and in Europe, so too has the 28-year-old led Belgium to new heights on the international stage.
The rise of Belgian basketball
Just six years ago, Belgium was unranked in the FIBA world standings – and rightly so.
Up to that point, the women's team had failed to qualify for the World Championships and the Olympics, and of the 10 European Championships Belgium had qualified for, their highest finish was sixth.
So when the 2017 European Championships tipped off, nobody was expecting much from Belgium.
But the Cats weren't there to make up the numbers. After sweeping their opponents in the group stage, Belgium took care of Italy in the quarter-finals before succumbing to eventual champions Spain in the semi-finals. But by simply reaching that stage, Belgium ensured their first-ever qualification to the 2018 World Championships, and the squad made a final statement by hammering Greece by 33 points in the bronze medal game.
Winning bronze at the European Championships was a big achievement, but in the build-up to the 2018 World Championships, a question still lingered: Are Belgium a legitimate threat?
The Cats answered that question emphatically, winning their group and beating world no.3 France in the quarter-finals before losing to eventual champions the USA in the semis. Belgium would finish fourth – quite the performance for a side making its debut in the competition.
In 2019, Belgium's 'official' quest to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics began with the European Championships. Unlike two years prior, when the Cats stunned the competition to win bronze, Belgium entered the competition with plenty of attention – there would be no surprises this time around.
Belgium would finish fifth at the Euros, securing their spot in one of the three all-important Olympic qualifiers that would take place in February 2020.
Ostend was chosen as one of the host cities for the tournament, with Canada, Japan and Sweden rounding out the qualifying group.
To secure an Olympic berth, all Belgium had to do was finish in the top two. A task that, on the surface, sounded simple enough. But after Belgium dropped their opening game to Canada, the dream of qualifying for the Olympics seemed to be hanging by a thread.
A massive win against Japan in their following game gave the Belgians life, setting up the biggest game in the history of Belgian women's basketball against Sweden.
Win and go to Tokyo.
In front of a sold-out crowd inside the Ostend Dome, Belgium rose to the occasion. They beat Sweden 61-53, spurred on by Meesseman's stellar 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Belgium, a small country of just 11.5 million people, whose women's team had been unranked as recently as 2016, had completed their road to Tokyo.
"When we qualified, to do it in front of our home crowd – that feeling was amazing," Meesseman says. "But because it's been so long since we qualified, it still doesn't feel real that we're going to the Games. But once I get to Japan, and I see everything with my own eyes, then I'll say, 'Yeah, this is the Olympics.'"
Explaining the team's ascension, Meesseman said:
"I think it's been a mix of everything. Before this evolution, every year we had a different coach or a different staff, and people had different ideas – it's almost impossible to build something that way. So once we started with coach [Philip] Mestdagh in 2015, we also started to have the right mix of veterans and younger generation coming in. It was like a big puzzle, and every piece was coming together.
"They also changed the schedule for the European Championships – before then I had to decide between playing for the national team and the WNBA and other people had different commitments. But then everyone became available, and starting from that moment the puzzle was complete and we started to play beautiful basketball."
Olympics and EuroBasket
So, what goals does Meesseman have for her Olympic debut in Tokyo?
"Well, for me personally – and I think I speak for the team as well – the main goal is to enjoy it. I'm just going to enjoy the Games and look back on the road we had to get there. Of course, we're going to give everything we have on the court, but I think if we simply enjoy being there and soaking up the experience, it's easier for us to play our game and to play basketball without the pressure we've had up until now."
But before Meesseman and the rest of her Belgian teammates can begin to enjoy the prospect of travelling to their first Olympic Games, they first have the not insignificant matter of the European Championships to contend with. And with Belgium now ranked sixth in the world, there's zero chance the Cats will surprise anyone. In fact, they're one of the favourites to win the competition. But don't tell Meesseman that.
"If we say that to ourselves, it messes with our heads. So our slogan has always been: Step by step, game by game, day by day."
It's a slogan that has seen Belgium make it all the way to the Olympic Games. Perhaps it will carry the team to the Olympic podium too.