Willy Hernangómez and his affair with the podium

Willy Hernangomez Geuer of Spain celebrates during the semi-finals march against Australia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Di Yin/Getty Images)
Willy Hernangomez Geuer of Spain celebrates during the semi-finals march against Australia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Di Yin/Getty Images)

The centre for Spain's men's basketball team has not missed out on a podium since he made his senior debut. Now he's eyeing gold at Tokyo 2020. It will be his second Olympic Games and his family's third, after his mother competed at Barcelona 1992. 

A year ago, Spain's men's basketball team enjoyed one of their biggest accomplishments: winning the 2019 FIBA World Cup. It was a feat they had achieved just once before, in 2006.

The win cemented their love affair with the continent of Asia, as the 2006 tournament was held in Japan and the 2019 edition took place in People's Republic of China.

Spain weren't considered favourites to win the World Cup, as Pau Gasol had missed the tournament through injury. And he wasn't the only important absence, with the likes Nikola Mirotic and Serge Ibaka also missing out.

All of this was even more difficult because Spain were going through a generational change, and couldn't rely on other legends such as Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes or José Manuel Calderón.

But what they did have was youth, an abundance of talent and four NBA players: Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and the Hernangómez brothers, Willy and Juancho.

And they all made the grade.

Ricky Rubio ended the tournament as MVP, while Marc Gasol was included in the All-Tournament Team. Although Willy and Juancho Hernangómez - who made their NBA debuts in the 2016-17 season - had less experience, they lived up to their potential.

It proved to be no accident. Since the time they made their debuts with the senior national team, they have always had a place on the podium at important competitions.

Willy, the oldest brother, made his senior debut in 2015, and he has won two gold (2015 Eurobasket and 2019 World Cup) and two bronze medals (Rio 2016 Olympic Games and 2017 Eurobasket).

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Salud...🏆 VIVA 🇪🇸! #WH

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"Sleeping the night before was very difficult"

In an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020, Hernangómez revealed that his most recent gold medal has been difficult to forget.

"The memories are very clear because the first anniversary of that achievement was a short time ago. The memories are still very vivid. I remember the sacrifice, the effort, but also the excitement, the hope and the hard work that made the goal come true," said Hernangómez.

He also said he hasn't forgotten the feelings he had before competing in that highly-anticipated final where Spain played Argentina.

"I clearly remember the mix of nerves and excitement that we had the night before. Sleeping was very difficult for me and my brother. You wake up excited, we trained, we planned for the match in a very special way, because you know that it is the last match and what you are able to accomplish is something as important as the World Cup."

"I think that until the ball jumped and we started the game, the nerves remained. It was a very long day, up until the game was over," he acknowledged.

Although more than a year has passed since then, Hernangómez explained that what they achieved hasn't really fully sunk in.

"We still haven't absorbed the magnitude of winning a World Cup. It is true that the feeling of emotion, happiness and the relief of a job well done is something that I remember. I wanted to hug my teammates, my coaches, my brother and my parents, who were there too. It is a unique sensation because it cost us a lot. In my life I haven't had as great a feeling of happiness as I had after that game," Hernangómez recalled.

Willy Hernangomez and Juan Hernangomez of Spain kiss the winning trophy during celebrations after winning the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Willy Hernangomez and Juan Hernangomez of Spain kiss the winning trophy during celebrations after winning the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Even more excited for Tokyo 2020

As world champions, Spain will arrive at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 - once again in Asia - as one of the medal favourites. Despite the postponement, Hernangómez believes that won't change.

"In every sport, Spain has to be at the top of every championship. It is true that we weren't favourites in the World Cup, but we fought and we proved that no one can beat us in terms of dedication, passion and hope."

Even though the Olympic Games are being held in Asia - a continent that has been a talisman for Spain - Hernangómez has not yet visited Tokyo.

"I've never been to Tokyo. It is a place that I am waiting to go to, plus I love its culture. It is very interesting for me. I had planned to go this year," he joked, "but I have to wait one more year."

Sport is health. The fact that the Olympic Games can be held will mean that we can all enjoy [good] health

Since the postponement, he is even more excited about Tokyo 2020.

"I believe that people are even more excited about having the opportunity to celebrate an Olympic Games that we wanted to happen in 2020 but eventually had to be postponed."

"We have to try to make it to those Games, and try to make this situation - which people around the world are suffering from - better and hopefully we will be in the best place that we can be next year, and can play and enjoy sports - not only basketball, but all sports. And so we can forget all these bad times and sport can bring us the happiness that it always brings.

"The Olympics will be the moment this pandemic ends, and what better way to celebrate it than through sport, happiness, medals, matches, battles, races... all of it is related to sport, because in the end sport is health. The fact the Olympic Games can be held means we can all enjoy [good] health."

Rusty gold

Tokyo 2020 will be the second Olympic Games for Hernangómez after Rio 2016.

"It was an unique experience. I was very excited to be able to experience the Olympic Games in Rio, which is a tremendous city, with a lot of history, and we were also able to go on cultural outings and get to know parts of Rio. For me it was a unique experience to meet athletes from other countries, to be able to enjoy a mini-city, which is the Olympic Village, which hosts all the athletes from all the countries," he recalled.

Spain won the bronze medal in Rio after a thrilling match against Australia, which was decided by just one point (89-88).

"The rusty gold," he said laughing. "That's what we call it. Winning an Olympic medal is very, very complicated. In our history, we haven't won many. Those were my first Olympics, and I was in my second year in the senior national team, so to have the chance to win a medal was something incredible. I kept that medal because it is very valuable for me."

Making progress

Hernangómez wants that bronze to become gold at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

"I want gold, not bronze," he said jokingly.

"We start every competition with ambition and hope. Our mindset is to always target gold. Once you win an Olympic medal, you realise how valuable it is, but our minds should always be set on reaching the final and winning the gold medal," the Spanish centre explained.

The Hernangómez who took part in the 2016 Olympics, has very little to do with the 2020 version.

"Personally I've changed a lot: I am older, more mature, I have more experience in championships and in the Games."

"In the Spanish team, I have the same hopes of competing and learning from my teammates, but now I have more experience, more responsibility in the team."

Willy Hernangomez Geuer and #41 Juancho Hernangomez greet supporters during the quarter-final match against Poland at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images)
Willy Hernangomez Geuer and #41 Juancho Hernangomez greet supporters during the quarter-final match against Poland at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

The Olympics: Brotherly matters...

One thing that may also be different from the previous Olympics is the presence of his brother Juancho in the Spanish team.

Juancho, who is a forward, was not at Rio 2016, but he won the 2019 World Cup with his brother.

“It is an experience that I would love to be able to enjoy and share with my brother: the Olympic Games, I think it is the most important championship for any athlete. And what better way than to experience it hand in hand with my brother," said Willy Hernangómez.

"I told him about the experience I had in Rio: being able to share the dining room, the gym, take a walk around the Village with other athletes, see Michael Phelps, Rafa Nadal... elite athletes that you only normally see on television. I hope to go to the next Games in Tokyo - an incredible city - and to be able to be with my brother, compete, and both enjoy the Olympics."

Willy Hernangómez talks to Tokyo 2020

... or family matters?

When he took part in Rio 2016, Willy Hernangómez became the first Spanish basketball player to compete in the Olympics as the son of an Olympian.

The Hernangómez family have a long tradition in basketball. Not only do the two brothers play in the NBA, but their younger sister, Andrea, is also professional basketball player.

It is not surprising that all three are dedicated to basketball, since their parents, Guillermo and Margarita 'Wonny' Geuer, were also professionals.

The two carved out their career in the Spanish league, but Margarita was the one who achieved the most success, both at club and national level, where she managed to win the 1993 European Championship, after obtaining the Olympic diploma at the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992 thanks to a fifth position.

"My mother has told us many stories about European Championships, the Club World Cups, and especially those very special Olympics that were here in Barcelona ​​in 1992. It was very important for Spanish culture to be able to watch other sports, other disciplines, so that people could enjoy that competition," said Willy.

"My mother has very vivid memories of those Games, which she really enjoyed. She was able to see great athletes, she was able to see Michael Jordan, and other great basketball players. The truth is that I think she is a bit envious because she knows that she had a great time and is happy because she knows that the Olympic Games is something incredible and that her children will hopefully be able to enjoy, too," he continued.

A double tribute

The Hernangómez's, Willy, Juancho and Andrea, listened to those stories without knowing what the future was going to hold - although it was clear that they would always be glued to a basketball.

“When I was I child, I didn't think at all that I would make it to the Games as well. For me the most special moment was the Opening Ceremony, when you walk around the track and see all the fans, all the athletes representing their country. For me that moment was very special and there you realise that you are in an Olympics. My mother has always told us stories then that are still happening now. When I tell my mother stories, she is not surprised because she has already experienced them," said Juancho.

Without a doubt, the children's greatest references were their parents.

For this reason, Willy and Juancho decided to honour them at the 2019 World Cup. While Juancho had his own surname written on his shirt, Willy chose to wear a shirt with his mother's.

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La Familia. ❤️🇪🇸🔋💪🏽

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The decision seemed to bring them luck as those shirts ended up sporting a golden star.

But will the same thing happen at Tokyo 2020?

“It was something with our parents, taking advantage of the fact that we both played together. It went very well for me, as we managed to win the World Cup, but it's something I have to think about. But if we can continue to wear the surname of our parents, it would be incredible," said Willy Hernangómez.

His other family

'Family First' is like a mantra for Hernangómez. His family are basketball players; but basketball has also given him another family on the court.

He believes that the strongest value of the Spanish national team is the fraternity between its members.

"The key for us is that we are a family. We are a group of friends, a group of people who dedicate ourselves to something that we are passionate about and that we love, which is basketball. And we also like and are passionate about competing, winning and playing difficult games," he acknowledged.

This is a value that is transmitted from the oldest member of the team to the youngest.

"I learned the word 'family' when I was the youngest of the 1980 generation that included Juan Carlos (Navarro), Pau (Gasol) and Garbajosa, and it is the mentality that we still have now."

And he trusts that this will also give them a competitive advantage at Tokyo 2020.

In Tokyo, he will once again see the Olympic flame, which he considers the most exciting moment of the Games.

"You see the Olympic torch arrive, cross the stadium and light up everything. In that moment you realise the history of the Olympic Games, and you already want four years to have passed and to go to the next Olympics."

This time it will be five years, but that flame will burn again and light up Willy Hernangómez's eyes, which apparently can see the brightness of a gold medal.

#14 Willy Hernangomez Geuer of Spain celebrates during the quarter-final match between Spain and Poland at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images)
#14 Willy Hernangomez Geuer of Spain celebrates during the quarter-final match between Spain and Poland at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (Photo by Yifan Ding/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images