For Australian Opals hopeful and top WNBA prospect Tiana Mangakahia, this November will mark one year of being cancer-free.
It has been an incredible year of second chances for the 25-year old Brisbane native, both off and on the court.
In June 2019, Mangakahia was riding high, she was coming off a breakout season at US college basketball powerhouse Syracuse University, was considered a potential WNBA draft pick and had been recently named in the Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals’ preliminary squad for the originally scheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
When she learned she had made her first Opals squad she called her mother and said, “Mum, it looks like my dream is coming true. It looks like we are going to Tokyo!”
A few weeks later, Mangakahia would be diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma after discovering a lump on her left breast and was forced to withdraw from the Opals camp to commence chemotherapy in the US.
“I had all these plans, but when I first got sick, I felt like everything was kind of taken away from me just like that,” said Mangakahia.
Although she underwent treatment on the other side of the world, Mangakahia kept in regular contact with Opals head coach Sandy Brondello and her Opals teammates. Her parents and five brothers would take turns visiting her in the US during every chemotherapy session.
Mangakahia was also surrounded by teammates, friends, coaches and fans at Syracuse who became her support system and says the university has become her second home.
“I am so blessed and thankful to my coaches, both Sandy here and Quentin at Syracuse, for being so positive and supportive with me. Having everybody’s support during the hard times and the opportunities they have given me again has been incredible.”
After eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, Mangakahia is cancer free and the basketball dreams she thought were dashed are still intact. They just have new meaning and significance now.
“The experience has definitely changed my outlook on life. You never know when something can be taken away from you. I have learned the power of staying positive when you’re going through stuff and it has made me more independent and stronger as a result. It really gives you a perspective on everything.”
Through a twist of fate, career goals that once looked unattainable have never been closer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the 25-year old had played her senior season at Syracuse, she would have missed out on her final chance to win a NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship, with last year’s tournament cancelled.
In October of this year, Mangakahia was granted an Extension of Eligibility by the NCCA which will allow her to complete her senior season later this month.
Additionally, if the Olympics had occurred this year, she would not have been able to participate. Recently named in the 2020 Australian senior women’s national team preliminary squad, coach Brondello says Mangakahia has a realistic shot at making the final team ahead of Tokyo.
“Just thinking about all of the second chances that I’ve been given is mind-boggling. Now, I just have to make the most of them,” remarked Mangakahia.
Brondello praises Mangakahia for her on-court performance and is also pleased to see her returning to the game.
“We are thrilled to have Tiana back on the Opals preliminary squad,” said Brondello. “She is a relentless competitor on and off the court and to see her able to get back to doing what she loves is just so admirable and inspiring.
“Tiana brings a great skillset to the squad which offers different possibilities. She is very fast, can shoot the three and get to the rim.”
Grateful for her chances alongside the Opals again, Mangakahia believes her core attributes will integrate nicely with the dynamic of the larger squad.
“When I was renamed to the Opals I just felt so blessed for the opportunity after sitting out for a year,” said Mangakahia.
“I think the way I play would compliment the team. I am a pass first point guard. An offensive facilitator. The team is already stacked with great scorers like Liz (Cambage), Jenna (O’Hea) and Bec (Allen) and I feel my ability to find and create ways to get them the ball would be of value.”
Mangakahia has joined the Opals ahead of two of the biggest years in the program’s history, where they are set to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the 2021 Asia Cup, and the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney.
“Just thinking about the possibility of representing the Opals in Tokyo or at the 2022 World Cup on home soil gives me goosebumps,” said Mangakahia. “It would be so cool to have my family and friends be able to watch and support me.”
Brondello is also eager to see what Mangakahia can achieve during her senior college year campaign, as the season tips off later this month.
“Players like Tiana are the future, and the future may come sooner rather than later,” said Brondello.
“Tiana has played very well in college overseas and I can’t wait to continue watching her development this year.”
In just two seasons with Syracuse, Mangakahia has become the university’s all-time assists leader (591) and the fastest player in Syracuse history to score 1,000 points.
“It helps me be able to showcase what I can do after everything,” Mangakahia said of playing this college season via a recent ESPN interview in the US. “One more year at Syracuse gives me a better opportunity to make the Opals and get selected in the top 10 of the WNBA Draft.”
In preparation for her highly anticipated return to Syracuse, Mangakahia has been rebuilding her upper body strength and regaining the nearly 10 kilos she lost during treatment.
She says being on the court again will feel a bit surreal as it has been so long and that not being able to compete after playing basketball since she was five years of age has been tough.
“Mentally, I’ve been preparing for my return to the court. I have been watching a lot of game film and have been visualising my successful return. I’ve played it out in my head over and over. There is a lot of pressure on me now to play well, but I’m trying to not think too much about that part.”
She has also added a new dream along her journey. To use the platform basketball provides to inspire fellow breast cancer survivors.
Mangakahia’s story has been picked up extensively by US sports media and touched the global basketball community.
Examples of this include her Syracuse teammates creating a hugely popular video counting down the final seconds of her last chemotherapy session; Syracuse naming her 2019 Sportsperson of the Year; and Australian NBA player Jonah Bolden paying off the remaining balance of a GoFundMe that Mangakahia had set up to allow her parents to travel to the US.
Mangakahia says it’s important for her to pay back the incredible support she has received and wants others to know that things get better. She is also involved with several charitable groups and tries to meet with as many cancer survivors as possible, like the time she surprised a nearby high school player’s mother who had been battling breast cancer.
“I am looking forward to getting back on the court and being able to motivate other people who are going through cancer by showing them I got through it,” said Mangakahia. “To show them it is possible get your life back on track and keep pursuing your dreams.”
View the 2020 Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals squad here.
Image credit of Syracuse Athletics.