Canadian women take aim at world basketball medal

Canadian women take aim at world basketball medal
It would have been easy and understandable had Kim Gaucher called it a career with the Canadian women’s basketball team after the 2016 Rio Olympics, capping off a decade of service with a top eight finish in her second Games, fully confident that she had played a large part in the program’s ascension to one of the best in the world.

And it would have been just as easy and understandable had Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe decided to spend this summer back in the WNBA, making a salary playing the game she loves and building on a solid rookie season with the New York Liberty, honing her estimable skills before rejoining Canada in September for the FIBA World Cup.

But there’s something about the national women’s program that gets in the blood and the soul of the players, giving them a desire to do their very best for the country, to keep alive global medal hopes and send a signal to the next wave of young women players that Canada counts above all.

It’s why the 34-year-old Gaucher was in Edmonton last week for another Canadian training camp and exhibition series, the first of three leading up to the late September worlds in Spain.

“I really enjoy playing for Canada and any time I have an opportunity, I’m going to take it,” said Gaucher, a native of Mission, B.C.

“I feel like the breakthrough to a medal is really right around the corner and it’s fun. I’m playing basketball for my job so why not?”

And it’s why the 26-year-old Raincock-Ekunwe, Toronto-born, B.C.-trained, decided to shut down her North American career for a summer to dedicate her training to the national team program.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “I’m just really at ease with Team Canada, it feels like the right fit for me, the right environment to be in with my life. I’m very happy with my decision.”

Gaucher, about to enter the final year of a three-year contract in France — she’ll be a teammate of fellow Canadian Shona Thorburn in the fall — has become the gold standard against whom younger teammates are measured.

“The young ones get to see, okay, this is what it’s like to be a two-time Olympian, this is how you play, this is how you conduct yourself, this is how you prepare, this is how you train,” said head coach Lisa Thomaidis.

“We can say that all we want but until you see it up close and personal, the strength of the message is a whole lot stronger.”

Raincock-Ekunwe has emerged as a developing force offensively and defensively and will be a focal point on whatever iteration of the team emerges after training camps and exhibition series in Canada, Asia and Europe before the worlds. Her decision to dedicate the summer to preparing to play for Canada means she’ll get every opportunity to fit into a primary role that Thomaidis sees for her.

“She’s far and away the most improved player we’ve seen in the recent history, how she’s come along. She’s got a ton of athletic talent and ability and it’s fun to see her talent catch up to her athletic ability,” the coach said. ”She’s going to be key piece for us for sure.”

Gaucher and Raincock-Ekunwe will be two vital parts of a Canadian that’s absolutely a medal contender at the 2018 worlds. There likely to be a handful of holdovers from the Rio Olympics team like Kia Nurse, Miranda Ayim, Miah-Marie Langlois, Michelle and Katherine Plouffe and Nirra Fields along with promising newcomers that could include Kayla Alexander, Jamie Scott, Bridge Carleton, Shaina Pennington and Ruth Hamblin.

Thomaidis will have a wealth of talent to choose from, instead of just finding athletes to fill out the roster, some very, very good players are not going to make the cut.

The athleticism and skill, coupled with the experience gleaned by back-to-back Top Eight finishes at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, has made the world sit up and take notice.

Canada, ranked No. 5 in the world, can no longer sneak up on teams.

“It’s cliché but I think we’ve earned that pressure, those expectations. It’s exciting,” Thomaidis said. “We’d much prefer that to back in the old days when there were no expectations on us.

“It’s great that people are expecting us to do well, the climb from 11th in the world to fifth was monumental but the climb to the top three is another huge task and a pretty steep mountain to climb as well.”
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