Two months ago, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was playing professional basketball in Russia. Two months from now, she was supposed to be suiting up for Team Canada at the Tokyo Olympics. And right now, she should be at a pre-Olympic training camp in Edmonton.
Instead, the former Vernon high-school star is waiting out the pandemic with her mom, Denny Raincock, in Penticton.
“It was a pretty hard blow when the Canadian Olympic Committee announced (in March) that we would not be going to Tokyo. I didn’t really understand the decision at first, but now, looking back, I’m pretty proud of how we were the first Olympic body to pull out,” Raincock-Ekunwe said in an interview Friday.
Team Canada, which is currently ranked fourth in the world, was last together at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgium in February, and has since agreed as a group to look on the bright side of things.
“We decided: OK, we have another year to get better and reach our peak, so we are taking the positives out of the situation, but it is hard to reshape the summer. It’s so unpredictable,” said the six-foot-two forward, who also represented Canada at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Raincock-Ekunwe, 28, grew up in Toronto, but moved to Vernon at the age of 16 and turned heads during her two seasons at Kalamalka Secondary School.
From there, she spent four years at Simon Fraser University – her second season coincided with the school’s entrance into the NCAA – before embarking on a professional career that began in 2013 in Switzerland.
She later played in Germany, Australia and France, plus suited up for the New York Liberty of the Women’s National Basketball Association in 2017 and 2019. During her last season in New York, she averaged 13.1 minutes, 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds over 28 games.
Once the WNBA season finished last fall, she went to Russia, and got into 33 games before the league shut down in March due to COVID-19 with just two regular-season contests left on the schedule.
Her team in Orenburg, a city of 550,000 near the Kazakhstan border and about a two-hour flight from Moscow, initially refused to release her just in case the season resumed.
“There was a lot of back and forth with my agent and my team to try to get the heck out of there,” said Raincock-Ekunwe.
In the end, the team paid out her contract and covered the cost of her trip – which took 45 hours and included five connections – to Penticton.
“I was lucky to be on one of the more professional teams in the league,” she said, alluding to fellow Canadian Olympians like Ruth Hamblin, who was fined by her Russian club team for returning to Canada.
Raincock-Ekunwe said women’s basketball is incredibly popular in Russia – “it’s the strongest women’s basketball league in Europe” – and pro leagues are populated mainly by homegrown talent.
“The Russian players are really strong. A lot of them stay in Russia, because the money they’d make in Europe isn’t comparable to what they make in Russia,” she explained.
Clubs are allowed a total of four imports: two each from North America and Europe.
Raincock-Ekunwe’s next professional stop will be with the Lionesses in Lyon, France, on a two-year deal she signed in April.
The team got a look at her in 2018-19, when she played for a rival club in Bourges, France, which met the Lionesses in the quarterfinals of the EuroLeague championships.
“Nayo is an impressive athlete, a real fighter on the field and with an irreproachable state of mind outside,” Lionesses’ coach Tony Parker said in a press release at the time of her signing.
“I know that she will adapt very easily to the team, in a championship that she knows well.”
Hopping across continents and living out of suitcases to scratch out a career as a professional athlete hasn’t been a problem for Raincock-Ekunwe.
“It’s my passion and I’m really lucky to be playing the sport I love and making a bit of money, too,” she said.
But until it’s safe to travel again, she will bide her time in Penticton, lifting weights three times a week in her garage using equipment provided by the Canadian national team, plus doing twice-weekly cardio and basketball workouts.
And after the two-year deal in Lyon is finished, Raincock-Ekunwe will “see how the mind and body feel” before deciding what to do next.
She’s close to completing a degree in health sciences from SFU and is considering a career in the field of health promotion, likely in Vancouver or the Okanagan.