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BELGRADE, (Reuters) - A journey woman in European club basketball for most of her career, American-born Danielle Page will fulfill a childhood dream by playing in the 2016 Olympics for Serbia.
The 28-year old from Colorado Springs, granted Serbian citizenship in March, will represent her adopted country at next year’s games in Rio de Janeiro after helping the Balkan nation win their maiden European championship on Sunday.
“Every little girl dreams of going to the Olympics but it didn’t look realistic to me until recently,” a delighted Page, draped in a Serbian flag after the team received a royal homecoming from 15,000 fans in front of the Belgrade city hall on Monday, told Reuters.
“The girls told me the reception would be great but I never imagined it would be anything like this.
“The support this team got from the country is overwhelming and it just shows how much the fans value basketball.”
Serbian supporters lit up the sky with flares and fireworks as their team, who had never previously won a medal in women’s basketball as an independent nation, paraded the trophy.
A versatile and athletic player, Page was one of Serbia’s top performers in the tournament and she produced impressive skills in a 76-68 win over hot favorites France in the final.
Having moved to Europe after one season with WNBA outfit Connecticut Sun, Page played in Bulgaria, Israel and Hungary before settling in France in 2011.
She quickly caught the eye of Serbia coach Marina Maljkovic, who is also at the helm of French top division side Union Lyon.
Apart from blending in seamlessly in a short time-frame, Page won the hearts of Serbia’s fans by learning the country’s national anthem.
"Marina knew me through the French league and when she asked me if I was interested in playing for Serbia, I realized it was a great opportunity,” said Page.
“I wanted to be accepted by the Serbian people and my team mates helped me learn the words of the national anthem so now I sing it as loud as I can.
“Serbia has embraced me with open arms and I am super-excited to be a part of this and to feel so welcome here.
“I really can’t take any credit for blending in so easily because my team mates have been incredibly friendly and did everything to make me feel at home from day one.”
With the United States also qualifying for the Olympics as winners of last year’s World Championship, Page could against her former compatriots in Rio.
“It hasn’t even hit me yet that I’ll be going to Rio, much less that I could play against the United States,” she said.
“If it happens, I’ll figure it out then. I am sure there will be some mixed emotions but at the end of the day I love this (Serbian) team, I love the girls and the staff.”
The 33-year old Maljkovic, daughter of trophy-laden coach Bozidar Maljkovic who won four Euroleague titles with three different clubs, emphasized what Page meant to her team.
“She fit in perfectly as a stable character and a hard worker who embraced this country as her own," she said.
“Her presence on and off the court was invaluable. She played her basketball when we needed it most, in the final against France.
“We scanned her playing ability and character for a long time. We realized very quickly that she was the right player for us and it was also obvious she would bring so much more with her personality.”
Editing by Ed Osmond