Over the next two months VICE Sports will be profiling 16 athletes as they evolve into national superstars. Keep checking back here to find them all.
If you've heard of Laeticia Amihere, it's probably because of her most publicized accomplishment: Becoming the first Canadian woman to dunk a basketball. The dunk, itself a thunderous feat of athleticism even before one considers that she was just 15 years old at the time, became a viral internet sensation after it was posted on Twitter by the Ontario Basketball Association.
A few months later, while playing with the Canadian senior women's team at an exhibition tournament in Europe, the dunk caught the attention of some of Amihere's more seasoned teammates—people for whom a young woman dunking is less novel at this point. "Some of [my teammates] played in the WNBA, so they're like, 'Ah, I've seen that before,'" she told VICE Sports over the phone in September. She added that even still, "When it came out, they were pretty stunned."
"Coming out with the dunk drew a lot of attention," she said, reflecting on her viral fame. And while her dunk is truly impressive, it's not the most impressive thing about the 16-year-old Amihere. She is the No. 2 recruit in the class of 2019, according to the espnW HoopGurlz rankings—that's not just in Canada, but all of North America. She was called up to the Canadian senior team as a 16-year-old for a reason. She also recently helped lead the nation's Under-19 team to bronze at the FIBA U-19 World Cup, earning All-Tournament Team honors, averaging 11.7 points and 7.4 rebounds over seven games against older, more experienced players. And while she wasn't with the senior team for their gold-medal victory at the FIBA AmeriCup in Argentina, it won't be long until she's a fixture on that roster.
Canada Basketball has been aggressive with bringing underagers to tournaments in the past—Amihere played with the Under-16 team as a 13-year-old, too—and the senior team is no different. It's a part of the program's growth strategy that's helped identify some of their up-and-comers to watch, an early stamp of approval for names like Amihere, Kia Nurse, and Natalie Achonwa.
"It was great having her," national team coach Lisa Thomaidis told VICE Sports. "It was really good to get an initial look at her skill set, as well as put her in that environment and see how she would react and respond. A big thing for her is getting a visual of where she needs to be down the road, and I thought it served its purpose. She's extremely physical and a great athlete. Basketball is such a highly skilled sport that now it's just a matter of her continuing to work on her skill set."
Amihere took those lessons to heart, and her focus between now and the 2018 World Cup, when she'll likely join the senior team again. By dint of standing 6-foot-4 with tremendous athletic gifts, Amihere could complacently dominate high-school opponents. But as she reaches one level after another—college, the WNBA, and international play—her comparative advantages will lessen. With this in mind, she said, allowing herself to have some of her weaknesses "exposed," in her words, was a welcome opportunity.
Amihere works relentlessly. The training schedule for an elite performance athlete who also doubles as a high-school student is exhausting just to look at. She's up at 5:30 AM, her gear packed the night before, for a morning workout before school. Then there are classes at King's Christian, a private school in Oakville, Ontario (about a half hour west of downtown Toronto), followed by practice until 6 PM. That leaves a little time to eat and study and to fit in eight hours of sleep, and more or less strips out most of the opportunities to live the traditional teenager life. Amihere doesn't mind, appreciating the structure the routine provides and using weekends to catch up on time with family.
"There's never enough hours in the day, but I think for me, I've set up a program. That's what really gets me going," she said. "My teammates are like my family, so hanging out with them, even on the court, is pretty fun. I started playing [high-level basketball] in Grade 7, so I had my whole childhood seeing how it was not being an athlete. I much prefer the athlete side of things."
On top of everything else, there's also individual work, intense sessions during the offseason to help build her into a more complete and more dangerous player.
"She's really special," Lee Anna Osei, the founder of Canletes, an organization that develops and assists young athletes, and the coach of Ontario's Under-17 team, told VICE Sports. "One of the things that I really loved about her is not just her general work ethic, because a lot of kids have that work ethic, it's her ability to take coaching and her ability to open herself up more to think outside of the box."
A big focus for Amihere and Osei has been stripping convention and definitions from her game. Given her size, Amihere is naturally a post player, but her athleticism makes her potentially far more versatile. Her ability to expand her range will likely determine where she plays at the next levels of the sport, but for now, Amihere and those around her aren't limiting her to a single role. Given where her game is at now and how much time she has to improve, there's a good chance she winds up a complete original.
That work is, unfortunately, about to become more difficult. In late October, Amihere tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee going for a layup in a game, ending her 2017-18 campaign. Amihere's camp will practice caution to limit the chances of aggravation or re-injury. A good amount of research has focused on how to prevent ACL tears in young, female athletes—who studies have shown are more likely than male athletes to experience such injuries—but less information is available about the likelihood of and risk factors for re-injury. Amihere is hoping to return to action for 2018-19, which would give her a full year to get herself ready for her freshman college season.
"I didn't know quite what to think of it because I had never gotten a serious injury before," she said. "The most shocking part about all this was I did not mourn for long, because all I could think of is when I would get back and my recovery. I'm really trying not to focus too much on when I get back, because I definitely want to treat this recovery and process professionally, but I am definitely going to come back stronger physically and mentally I will have more insight on the game. This is just another chapter in my long book and is something I'm going to overcome because God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers."
Through all of her earlier work, Amihere had quietly maintained a goal that could now be a little tougher to achieve: to jump from No. 2 in the ESPN rankings for the recruiting class of 2019 to No. 1, rarefied air for a Canadian prospect.
"I've been working. A couple of months ago I was actually ranked No. 3. Moving up to No. 2 was a good jump, but definitely getting to that No. 1 spot is my goal and what I strive for every day," she said.
Wherever she lands in the recruiting rankings, a college basketball program somewhere is going to be elated to welcome her. In September, she narrowed her list of potential schools down to 14, a wide net to be sure, with plenty of time to work through the choices before committing. She plans to take sports management courses wherever she lands, a goal which helped her narrow the options initially. On that list are some of college basketball's powerhouses. If they want to land Amihere, they'll have to offer more than just a winning pedigree.
"For me, what's really important is skill development. Being able to develop your players," she said. "Obviously, a lot of the top programs will do that. And obviously, the relationship I have with the coaches, that really sparked a lot. I know a lot of players that are NCAA, so asking around to my friends and my peers that are in the NCAA, I got a lot of insight. They really helped me through the process, telling me pros and cons and really what to watch out for."
There are still two high-school seasons and two summers of international play before she'll set foot on a college campus as a student-athlete. With a rare combination of size, athleticism, skill, and work ethic, she is the latest and perhaps likeliest could-be star in an increasingly robust pipeline of Canadian basketball talent.
For now, there's the dunk, which is as important as it was popular (Natalie Weiner wrote a terrific piece at Bleacher Report recently that explored the importance of such moments). Amihere wasted little time in thinking of ways to channel the moment into sending a positive message. She's brainstormed ideas about a clothing line, for example, that would be targeted specifically to young, female athletes. "I'm trying to start that and change the culture out here, especially in Canada," she said. "I really want to inspire others, so I want to make tees like 'Jump like a girl' and stuff like that."
Amihere already spends time working with younger athletes, and it's her hope that her own success will help continue to build momentum for female Canadian basketball players. "I've heard a lot of people try to say, 'Hey what are the things you do to try to dunk?' So I'd also love to start doing camps to mentor the young girls out there."
"That's the thing that really motivates me every day," she said. "People are out here looking up to me, so I definitely have to live up to that. That's something that's really important for me, giving back, because when I was younger I didn't really have anybody to look up to."