Basketball

Canada's Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe sitting out 2nd straight WNBA season to focus on Olympics

29-year-old Canadian Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, a reserve player for the New York Liberty, says she will skip her second straight WNBA season, and the team is aware of her plans to focus on the Tokyo Olympics.

'I love to represent our country. I love to play with the women on our team,' she says

Canada's Kia Nurse (5) and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe (7) celebrate their win over Puerto Rico during FIBA Women's Olympic Pre Qualifying Tournaments Americas 2019. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Canadian Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe says she'll skip a second straight WNBA season in order to focus on the Tokyo Olympics.

The 29-year-old, a reserve player for the New York Liberty, says she's been in touch with the team and it is aware of her plans to focus on a gold medal.

"The plan this year is to forego the WNBA season again and to play with Team Canada for the whole summer, not miss any of our training camps leading up to the Olympics. Fully committed to Team Canada," Raincock-Ekunwe told CBC Sports.

Waiting for Raincock-Ekunwe in the WNBA would be a young Liberty team including Canadian teammate Kia Nurse and former No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu. The team fielded a league-record seven rookies during its two-win 2020 season.

"Of course it's tempting [to play with the Liberty]. I think they're making some moves this year that will be big, that will be beneficial for the team. Sabrina being healthy and with the rookies they had last season getting some experience last year, I think it will be a great year for New York. So yeah, it's tough to turn down the opportunity to play in one of the best leagues in the world. But I think Canada has a really good opportunity this summer," she said.

Raincock-Ekunwe currently plays for Lyon of France's Ligue 1, where she intends to finish the season.

In some ways, the Penticton, B.C., native's commitment is more crucial in 2021 than it was in 2020. The team meets regularly over Zoom, but hasn't been physically together since last February.

An upcoming international window, where European leagues break for national team events, begins Jan. 31, but Canada won't meet due to the spread of players across the world and various coronavirus restrictions. Instead, it'll hold a virtual training camp.

One advantage for the Canadians is that most other national teams don't meet virtually nearly as often, according to Raincock-Ekunwe, who previously played at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"I love to represent our country. I love to play with the women on our team. It's like a sisterhood or a family. And it's just such a great thing to be a part of and work together to that one goal. So it's something I look forward to every year getting together with this team. It's been a long time without each other. So it's weird," she said.

"I'm really happy that we can just keep the connection through a year of disconnection."

Team Canada may not meet in person again until after European league playoffs in May.

On Tuesday, Raincock-Ekunwe scored the game-winning basket with 21 seconds remaining in EuroLeague action against Poland's Arka Gdynia.

The centre is averaging 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds on 59 per cent shooting over nine French league games this season, adding 9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in four EuroLeague contests. Combined, Lyon is 9-4.

That low games-played number reflects the bumpy campaign, with a coronavirus outbreak forcing a pause in play at one point. Raincock-Ekunwe was among the players who contracted the virus.

"It didn't hit me as hard as some of the others. So I consider myself lucky. But I think I'm back to normal now — normal in this day and age. Honestly, I'm not feeling any side effects. I think right after I got it, it was hard to get the cardio back and kind of get the rhythm back," she said.

With the Olympics scheduled to begin in just six months, some of the same virus-related concerns that caused the initial postponement are being brought up once again.

As of today, Raincock-Ekunwe says she would support the decision to hold the Games.

"I support vaccination and I would hope that there would be enough vaccines for those who would want to have some prior to the Olympics. And I think that could put a lot of people's mind at ease. But I don't think that the athletes should be prioritized over the general population who is at risk," she said.

"And maybe I'm biased."

After opting out of two straight WNBA seasons, Raincock-Ekunwe has sacrificed more than many potential Olympians.

At this point, she just wants to play.

"I think we're all ready. Ready to play, ready to represent our countries."

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