SHE'S AS experienced and talented as they come in Irish basketball but when Gráinne Dwyer walked through the doors of the National Basketball Arena at the end of April to return to international training it felt like her 'first ever trial'.
Hoop dreams had been on hold since March 2020 when the club league season came to a premature end and then the 2020-'21 campaign was shut down before a ball was bounced on the hardwood. Basketball suffered more than most sports in this pandemic.
"It was just so good to be back in the arena. You can do all the Zoom sessions and road running you want, work on your skills or whatever, but it's just not the same. The standard is really, really high. We started with an extended panel of 30 with a few good U20 players involved too, so you can get back into it pretty quickly."
James Weldon and his backroom are still operating from a group of 20, which will be cut to 12 shortly for the European Championship for Small Countries.
Dwyer is also set to feature for Ireland's 3x3 team. It's a modified variation on the full court game, faster and more furious and the Tipp native's favourite.
"If I had to choose I'd pick by 3x3, it's exhilarating. It's streetball, in a way, so your heart and fight is key as well as talent. You need to be a bit of a dog really."
Matt Hall looks after Ireland's 3x3 side and they've had scrimmage games against male basketballers, including Cork's Adrian O'Sullivan and Darragh O'Sullivan, to gear up for the challenge ahead. Ireland have exceeded expectations since getting back into 3x3 in 2014.
"We did very well in 2015, finished in the top 10 and shocked everyone.
"In 2019 [alongside Fiona O'Dwyer, Claire Rockall and Edel Thornton] we beat Serbia but lost to Spain."
Grainne's older sister Niamh, Cork's Orla O'Reilly and Suzanne Maguire made up the inspirational 2015 team, with this summer's quartet to be revealed this week. There are also events scheduled across the country until August to let ballers from U14 up to senior enter teams into mini 3x3 outdoor tournaments before the anticipated resumption of indoor basketball in September.
Dwyer, who won it all on the domestic circuit with Glanmire before moving to Fr Mathew's in recent years, is as driven as ever after the shutdown.
"I'm 35 going on 36, so last season I badly needed a break. I did very little until we started easing back into it last July and then boom everything was gone before the new season was due to start.
"I found it very hard to get motivated last winter. My dad passed in late December, the nights close in on you and there's no open court. Even if there was, you'd need someone to rebound for you to get meaningful reps up.
"I slowly got back up to speed then. We were doing HIIT zoom calls three times a week in the club, doing the 5k or interval runs just to gear up. My physio Dervala told me the basketball would come back one I got the fitness up and she was right."
The European Championship for Small Countries takes place in Cyprus and Dwyer is grateful to her employer AIB in Carrigaline for their support.
"To be honest if they didn't understand how much sport means to be and allow me to move holidays around I wouldn't be still training with Ireland. That type of backing makes all the difference."
She's confident, with Weldon's ultra-professional set-up, the Irish will be in the mix for gold.
"We won a silver medal in 2016 and we were bitterly disappointed with 2018 [in the Mardyke Arena]. Finishing eighth wasn't good enough. At all.
"At the full Europeans you need professionals or you'll be eaten alive but there's no reason we can't go out to Cyprus to win gold."
Exactly the type of attitude that has carried her up to major prizes throughout her career.