LISA THOMAIDIS SEARCHED from coast to coast looking for a starting point guard for her University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team last season. Little did she know she was looking on the wrong continent.
With recruiting all but wrapped up, the Huskies head coach received an unexpected email from overseas in May of 2015 from a 22-year-old player she had never heard of from Ventspils, Latvia, who was looking for a place to play in Canada. One year later, Sabine Dukate helped the Huskies win their first national women’s basketball championship, capping a memorable journey across the Atlantic and across cultures.
“We had just graduated two of our point guards from the previous season and to get that email out of the blue was great,” says Thomaidis. “When she first sent me game-film and I saw her play, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we need to have her!’ So it really is unbelievable how it all happened.”
Dukate had played professional basketball the previous three years in Lithuania, where she met her boyfriend. Truth be told, it was his idea to come to Canada for a new adventure and to build a career as a massage therapist after acquiring a work visa. Dukate was also interested in going back to school. As she searched basketball websites, Dukate found Thomaidis listed as head coach of Canada’s national team, and quickly sent her an email.
“I didn’t think someone would respond to my email, since they have their own players in Canada and the university level is pretty high, so I didn’t think someone would reply,” Dukate says. “But I was lucky. I was thinking this was a really good opportunity for me to study and learn new basketball playing on the team with the best coach in Canada. Two weeks later, we were here.”
However, acquiring a student visa and making the trip overseas were only the first steps in a long process that took months to complete. As an international student who had been out of school for years and whose first language was not English, Dukate had to complete a plethora of paperwork and multiple tests and online courses proving her proficiency to be eligible to enter university and suit up for the Huskies. Months of tutoring followed, with Dukate passing her final test on the eve of the start of the fall semester.
“She is a very bright individual and it certainly helped that she was able to speak the language,” Thomaidis says. “But it’s one thing being able to take part in conversational English—it’s clearly another to be able to write a test and prove your competency. So that was very difficult and she literally got it done on the last possible date right before school started.”
While Dukate does speak five languages—Latvian, Lithuanian, German, Russian and English—she admits that she and her boyfriend had a tough time adjusting to life in a foreign country while trying to make ends meet.
“We struggled a lot, but at the same time, it just makes us stronger,” says Dukate, an arts and science student who is considering studying kinesiology moving forward. “I learned a lot about myself in this journey. I am happy that we came here and took this chance.”
Dukate says one of her favourite courses has been psychology because she enjoys learning about the relationship between the human mind and body. “I am blessed to have the chance to study in Canada. Not everyone gets this opportunity.”
Thomaidis is also thrilled that she took a chance on Dukate, who was the final piece of the puzzle for her 2016 championship team. The rookie guard saved her best for when it mattered most, leading the team with 18 points in last year’s Canada West conference final and adding 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the 2016 national championship victory.
“It was unbelievable,” Dukate says. “We went so far and all of last year’s players were amazing players and to play with them was an amazing experience. It was a dream (season).”
Thomaidis’ team graduated four of five starters from that 2016 championship squad. But with Dukate leading the way, the Huskies were once again one of the country’s best teams in 2016–17, repeating as Canada West conference champions—sparked by a 50-point weekend from Dukate—to earn a return trip to nationals. While they came up short in their bid to win back-to-back national titles this year, Dukate and the Huskies served notice that they will indeed be a force in the country for years to come.