Posted in Features, Sports

An interview with Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, queen of the basketball courts

From Burnaby Mountain to Germany and Australia, this former SFU student is making a name in pro athletics

Image Credits: Thomas Brüning

“I actually haven’t graduated yet!”

Those might sound like strange words to hear from a former student of SFU, but Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe has a pretty good reason for having not completed her university studies. Namely, she is a rising star in an exciting new era for Canadian women’s basketball.

Raincock-Ekunwe arrived at SFU back in 2009, and the 6’2’’ Toronto native quickly found her feet among the SFU athletic community.

In fact, her athletic prowess is largely the reason behind her current lack of a degree, as she explained: “When I first went to SFU, [the university was] in the CIS [Canadian Interuniversity Sport], so I spent my first year in the CIS. Then we moved to the NCAA, so of course I lost a year of eligibility. I’d planned to finish in five years, but could only do it in four and I could never make summer school because I was always away with the national team!

“End of story is, I don’t have my degree yet, but I’m working on my degree in health sciences. I’ve got six more courses left to graduate, which I hope to finish off in the near future.”

On and off the court, however, Raincock-Ekunwe has nothing but positive recollections of her time in the SFU women’s basketball program. “Coach [Bruce] Langford makes such an effort to recruit players that are great people as well as talented basketballers,” she said.

“My time at SFU was spent with a great group of amazing people and I’ve got so many great memories.”

After completing her time in the SFU program, the forward/centre has made a name for herself across the globe. Her first professional contract took her to Switzerland, where she took home four end-of-season awards after her debut season in the Swiss LNA, including a spot on the team of the year and the Defensive Player of the Year accolade.

A spell in Germany followed, where she helped the Wasserburg club claim the German national title. It was a rapid rise to the top for Raincock-Ekunwe, and one for which she is truly grateful.

“Any athlete who is able to play professionally in North America or Europe is extremely lucky, so being able to travel the world and play basketball as a career is a dream for me,” she said.

Most recently, Raincock-Ekunwe’s travels have taken her to the far side of the world, signing a short-term contract with Australian club Bendigo Spirit. Having earned two successive player-of-the-week nominations, Raincock-Ekunwe clearly made a positive impression. Is a return to Australia in the cards?

“I actually have an offer to come back [to Bendigo] next season, so that’s really exciting,” said Raincock-Ekunwe.

“I definitely would consider going back — it’s an amazing country with really incredible people and there’s so much more of Australia I’d like to see. So that’s an option, but if I have the opportunity to play in, say, Spain or Italy, two countries I’ve always wanted to play in, I’d have to consider that, too.”

Next on the list for the 25-year-old is perhaps the greatest opportunity of her career to date, as she travels to New York for a training camp with WNBA team New York Liberty. It’s one which clearly excites Raincock-Ekunwe, with the chance to earn a contract at the highest level of women’s club basketball.

“It’s a huge opportunity. It’s very hard coming out of a Canadian school to make the NBA or WNBA — I don’t know of any female basketballers who have come out of Canada and made it to the WNBA — so it’s a huge chance to show Canadian schools can produce high-level athletes. I’m starting a pretty rigid training schedule to get all aspects of my game ready because it’ll be a whole other level of basketball.

“I’ve got a 10-day contract, so I’ll go down April 20 for a tryout. If they want me, they keep me for the season. If not, I’ll just do national team camps and competitions this summer.”

Raincock-Ekunwe is more than used to national team camps by this stage in her career. Having been around the Canadian setup since 2011, she has since gone on to be part of her country’s first ever Pan American Games triumph in 2015, as well as one of the 12 players selected to represent Canada at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“The Olympics were an amazing experience,” said Raincock-Ekunwe.

“We didn’t quite finish how we’d wanted to — it was our goal to get to the medal rounds and we got knocked out by France in the quarter-finals, so I guess we can only look forward from here and my goal is to make it to Tokyo in 2020.

“It’s so cool to just be with those high-level athletes and people from around the world. My favourite part was just being in the Canadian team building — being able to meet people and cheer them on in their events was really special for me.”

Having taken herself out of her comfort zone and achieved such a great deal in her career so far, it’s easy to forget that Raincock-Ekunwe only left the SFU program four years ago. So what advice would she give to those looking to life after university?

“I would just say, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail. If you do fail, use it as motivation to achieve your dreams.’ I got cut from teams and who knows what the outcome of the Liberty trial [will be], but I’m just going to put myself out there and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I’m just going to keep working to achieve my dream.”