London • With white socks pulled knee high and her signature white headband pristine, Michelle Plouffe placed herself in the seat nearest her coaches.
Just in case.
She rested her elbows on her knees, and clapped for a layup. She rose to exhort a teammate who drew a charge and coaxed the referee with an exuberant point when the ball was knocked out of bounds.
She cheered as her Canadian teammates did the things she is used to doing as a leader on the University of Utah women’s basketball team.
“It’s a totally different thing from my college team where I’m a leader and here where I’m a rookie,” Plouffe said.
At the London Olympics, Plouffe is a practice player. She hasn’t gained a minute of game experience as Canada has struggled to a 1-2 start. Last year, Plouffe led the Utes with 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
“It’s hard to be on the bench, obviously,” she said after a 64-60 loss to France on Wednesday morning at the basketball arena. “But this is my first year playing on this team. I’m quite young; I’m just trying to gain experience from this.”
Plouffe, a junior from Edmonton, Alberta, is one of three women with Utah ties playing for Canada. Former Utes Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn are both major contributors.
“I’m quite young,” Plouffe said.
Utah coach Anthony Levrets spent the first week of the Games in London, monitoring Plouffe and cheering from the stands. He said he and his star player met for coffee Tuesday.
“She’s just walking around smiling,” Levrets said. “It’s hard for me, even, just being a fan. It’s hard for me to even quantify or really put into words what this experience is like. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them.”
Plouffe has spent years playing for various levels of the Canadian national team, although this season came with a twist as she rose to the highest ranks: She’s not joined by her sister or Utah teammate Taryn Wicijowski.
Both Katherine Plouffe, Michelle’s twin who plays at Marquette, and Wicijowski were among the final players cut as the national team was winnowed to its Olympic form.
Instead, Katherine Plouffe’s role, at least during the Games so far, hasn’t been that much different from Michelle’s. Watching. And waiting.
“She’s here,” Michelle Plouffe said. “She’s one of my biggest supporters. But I’m so glad she can be here to support me even though she can’t play. But we’ll be playing in four years.”
Said Katherine: “The next four years is the future for us and the rest of the younger group of Canadians that are coming up. It’s definitely what we are looking to for the future, and I’m going to say that we’ll definitely be part of that next team in four years.”
But Michelle Plouffe is a member of the team right now, and is building the foundation to help the Canadians qualify for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
She practices, and goes up against Smith each day. Then she sits and learns from what she sees during the games.
“She’s playing the ‘3’ [small forward] for them which is a little bit different from what she plays for us,” Levrets said, “and she’s playing behind [Smith], one of the best players in the history of their country.”
And her school, which is an ether Levrets hopes Plouffe uses the Olympic experience to break into.
“I think it will help her whether she plays in every game or whether she hardly plays,” he said.
And so she waits. At these Games, Plouffe may not be called upon. But she will be prepared.
Just in case.
Michelle Plouffe file
• Utah junior forward Michelle Plouffe is gaining experience sitting on the bench for Canada during the Olympics.
• Plouffe averaged 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds for the Utes last season.
• Plouffe’s twin sister, Katherine, who plays at Marquette, was among the last players cut from the Canadian team.