December 22, 2020
She Got Next, Episode 15: Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa
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PEPPER PERSLEY: Hi everyone, happy holidays and welcome to this episode of “She Got Next” with me, Pepper Persley. In this episode is my interview with Natalie Achonwa. Hope you enjoy.
PERSLEY: So thank you so much for being here. First of all, man, I’m just — again, I’m so excited to be chatting with you today. And let’s get started. So what has your experience being on the WNBA executive committee been like during the season when you had Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of your jersey, Black Lives Matter on your courts and you were supporting the Say Her Name campaign?
NATALIE ACHONWA: It was a crazy year for me to join the executive committee for sure. I was thrown in the fire a little bit with so much going on this season and such an impactful season and how much it meant. But nonetheless, it’s an honor to be named amongst some incredible women. And the work that the executive committee has done this season with the Players Association to make this year happen and to make it, once again, be impactful. So it’s really an honor for me to be a part of it. And I can’t wait to see what else happens next season and in the future of being part of it.
PERSLEY: Well, I loved seeing you sitting with so many other passionate players in the WNBA who speak about social justice and Black Lives Matter and the Say Her Name campaign with such passion. So it’s so amazing to watch you with them. So this summer, you won the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award. Where does that award rank on your list of accomplishments?
ACHONWA: It is by far one of the top awards. One, because the award is named after such a great not only basketball player, but person, someone that is passionate, someone that is dominant, someone that owns who she is named Dawn Staley, and to be able to win something named after her was such an honor. But also the work that I’ve been able to do with the award in the grant that I just received and able to partner with the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis, it’s made the award mean that much more to me because I was able to help the lives of women in my community and where I live.
PERSLEY: Yes. I mean, I think you’re so deserving of the award, watching what you’re doing in your community and how you’re affecting so many of the woman, as you said, so congratulations. What does it mean to you to be looked up to by Black girls, as a WNBA leader on and off the court?
ACHONWA: It’s something that I definitely don’t take lightly, especially growing up and always looking for and wanting role models that looked like me, I take it with the utmost amount of pride to be able to be someone that young girls can look up to and aspire to be like, because it really goes beyond the basketball court. And I believe that you cannot be what you cannot see. So for me to be able to be a strong, powerful leader and Black woman, it really is touching. [laughs] It’s touching to have young girls be able to look up to me and to be a role model for them.
PERSLEY: Well, I can say I’m definitely inspired by you. And I look up to you, and I know so many other Black girls do as well. So I’m so happy to hear that. Voting has been a big point for activism in the 2020 season, but what are the league’s next steps after this election?
ACHONWA: Well, yes, the the presidential election and voting for that might be over, but a huge importance right now, especially with our Players Association, is the runoff election in Georgia. Not only have we said from the very beginning that voting goes beyond the presidential election, that your local, and your senators and your governors and all your local officials are important to vote on. So this is where it’s still focused on. It was taking a breath that the Nov. 3 day passed, but making sure that we’re able to take control of the Senate and really be able to make the changes that we want to see in the communities if we’re going to have to own the Senate. And it’s important that we continue this push and focus in Georgia that anyone that’s able to vote in Georgia really takes us serious and makes sure that we get two more wins in January.
PERSLEY: Definitely the Senate race is so important as well, because the presidential race is just one person but the Senate race is so many people who can make such a difference in our country.
ACHONWA: Exactly. Exactly.
PERSLEY: What was your experience like in the wubble? What did you do for fun? Did you have roommates? If so, who were they? How did you build team chemistry?
ACHONWA: The wubble was quite an experience. It was really difficult sometimes to find moments to yourself, being surrounded by so many of your teammates and opponents and reps. But for me, it’s really been great to have — I almost wanted to age myself, all you know is FaceTime and Zoom and electronic stuff. But it’s great to have these avenues now to be able to stay connected with your people at home, or even when I’m overseas now, to using FaceTime and things to stay connected to your family is great. And for fun, I like to cook and I like to bake. So that was kind of my zen moment and moment that I took to myself to both reflect. And then, I love what food does in bringing people together, so having my teammates over, or some of my friends that play on other teams and baking for them, that was a lot of fun for me.
PERSLEY: What was your favorite thing that you cooked in the wubble?
ACHONWA: The Red Velvet cheesecake — or no, what did I make? — it was red velvet with cream cheese icing. That cake went. I was a big fan. And I think I made a honeybun cake, which was a hit. The baking was always a hit. But, I mean, I cooked various nights as well. But the sweets are always a hit.
PERSLEY: That sounds delicious. Wow, that sounds really, really good.
ACHONWA: It’s my favorite thing to do.
PERSLEY: Teammates are lucky to have that, have their chef be cooking up something that’s so awesome.
ACHONWA: I don’t know if my nutritionist would agree with you, but I think my teammates definitely loved it.
PERSLEY: [laughs] That makes sense, that makes sense. Can you discuss your basketball journey? How did you get from Canada to college at Notre Dame?
ACHONWA: My basketball journey was a little bit different in that we don’t have — or we do now, but when I was younger — we didn’t have quite the extensive high school program in Canada. So I actually went to something that was called NEDA at the time, which was the National Elite Development Academy that was run by Canada Basketball. And it brought together the best 12 women and the best 12 men of high school and we all trained and lived at the same location, so almost like a prep school. And from there, I was able to travel all over the US, all over the world really. We played in Argentina and Paris at a young age so I was able to get some international experience. But it was actually playing with Team Canada that I got really noticed by Notre Dame. Coach Niele Ivey, now the head coach at Notre Dame, was actually in Argentina to watch Skylar Diggins because she was playing on the US team, and we were playing against each other. She always tells the story. [laughs] It’s like our moment on how it all happens. But then she remembers calling Coach McGraw saying, “Hey, there’s this girl on the Canadian team that we really need to look at.” And then from there, the rest is kind of history. But then I ended up at Notre Dame, and the greatest decision that I think I’ve made by myself for a while.
PERSLEY: Well, what a story is that? And you just touched on who I was just about to ask about. So what are your thoughts on Coach Ivey being the new Fighting Irish head coach?
ACHONWA: So excited for her, and so excited to see what she does with the program. Coach McGraw is some big shoes to follow, but knowing who Niele is and knowing not only was she mentored by a great, but her ambition, and her willingness to push her players is going to turn the program into something you’ve never seen. And I’m really excited for the Ivey era, and to see what she can do and demand out of her players. She has a history of winning in herself and winning the first national championship at Notre Dame, and also being a part of the staff on their second one, so she knows what it takes to win and I can’t wait to see what she’s able to do at Notre Dame.
PERSLEY: I know you just touched on Coach Ivey, but I wanted to ask a question about Coach McGraw. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from her?
ACHONWA: One is definitely — actually both of them are things that I really learned by watching Coach McGraw. Not necessarily what she said, because she’s left me with a lot of gems throughout my time in our relationship. But two of the biggest things were, one, how she treated people. It didn’t matter if she was talking to the head — the president of our university, or if she was talking to our assistant coaches, or she was talking to the bus driver when we were on a road trip. She treated everyone the same and with the same amount of respect, and that is something that is truly honorable that I learned from her and now I try to practice in any interaction that I have with people. And the second one was, once again, another strong, unapologetic woman who knows what she believes in, knows who she is and she is dedicated to helping others. And that is something — and that time while I was at Notre Dame for those four, and then, bonus, five years, that was something that really helped me find and utilize my own platform in having to make a decision on who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with this gift of basketball. And she was a big influence in helping me find my voice.
PERSLEY: Wow, those lessons definitely connect to basketball, but those are also some great life lessons.
ACHONWA: That’s my favorite part about basketball is that it teaches you so much beyond the court. Yes, you learn skills and how to be a great athlete. But there’s so many transferable life lessons that you learn through sport and with the people that sport brings into your life. So, been very fortunate that it’s been a lot of great people on this journey of basketball of mine.
PERSLEY: When you add Notre Dame, you played with players like Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. What was your experience like playing with them?
ACHONWA: That was my favorite part about being part of the Notre Dame team and being a part of such an elite program like Notre Dame women’s basketball, is that every day at practice, like, take out the games, take out being a part of the NCAA, every day of practice, I got to get better. I played with some of the best players in collegiate athletics at the time and now they are still WNBA players I get to play against all the time. So they definitely challenged me. We are a very, very, very competitive group, so nothing was ever taken lightly. But it definitely, once again, prepared me for the professional level.
PERSLEY: Thank you for that perspective. What was it like to play two years with Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings?
ACHONWA: Great. I mean, coming into the WNBA and being able to play with one of the game’s greatest was amazing. She really helped me transition from being a college athlete to the pros. And even now that she’s still on staff with the Indiana Fever, I only played with her two years, but she’s been a part of my entire WNBA career and has taught me that there’s way more that basketball can do in continuing that community effort and making a difference in our community, as she does so much on and off the court.
PERSLEY: Yes, what an amazing player and what an amazing leader as well. I was actually in her leadership program for a couple months, I believe, this summer, so I was able to experience that as well. Players often talk about the moment when they realize it was no longer college. So what was your “welcome to the WNBA” moment?
ACHONWA: My rookie year, I had a couple “welcome to the WNBA” moments. I think I actually might have, like, set a record — don’t quote me on this, you might have to look this up in the record book — but for, like, flagrant fouls drawn my rookie year. I definitely got a couple elbows to the face, and welcome to the big leagues. So I’ve always been a bit of an undersized post player and I’ve always been super competitive and gritty. So the old vets in the post taught me to watch my face and toughen up a little bit for sure.
PERSLEY: Wow, what an experience. Well, thank you for sharing that as well. And last question: WNBA players inspire so many young people, but who inspires you?
ACHONWA: So even growing up, especially growing up, like I touched on before, it was often tough in Canada to find direct role models. Because, well, the WNBA wasn’t on TV like that and we weren’t able to see women’s basketball players. So I kind of had a reverse role model in my younger sister. And still to this day, anytime I make a decision, I still think of her, but it was always an aspiration of mine to be somebody that my younger sister Kendra could look up to, someone that she would be proud to say that, Natalie’s my older sister. And so anytime I did anything, anytime I said anything, any decision that I made, I always tried to think, would Kendra be proud of me? And it’s kind of stuck with me and it’s done me well so far. So it’s still really how I guide my compass in, am I someone that not only will my sister now look up to, but is someone that someone like you would look up to? Is this someone that little girls, little boys in Canada, or all over the world, in Indiana, can look up to? And that’s kind of been my compass.
PERSLEY: Well, thank you for sharing that. And it’s really inspiring to hear that, like, reverse relationship that you have with your younger sister. So thank you for sharing. And one last question, actually: What is the best piece of advice you would give to a young girl who wants to play in the WNBA?
ACHONWA: One piece of advice would be — there’s so many. I was thinking about a bunch. I was thinking about, first of all, enjoying the journey. And be a kid. Like right now, it’s so hard. It’s so hard because I think I, personally, in my own journey, I started to specialize in a sport too early. And if I could go back, that’s something that I would have tried to not do. Play as many sports as you want, as long as you can. Have fun, enjoy yourself, don’t take yourself too serious, because that’s something you never get back. Time is something you never get back. So enjoy being a child. You can still work hard. You can still focus on a sport, or on music, or on your schooling, or whatever you want to be, you can still focus on that. But you have to be able to enjoy yourself because you can never be a kid again.
PERSLEY: That’s so true. Well, thank you for that advice. And I definitely take that to heart as I’m still a kid, working two jobs, in school as well.
ACHONWA: Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself.
PERSLEY: Thank you so much for that advice. Thank you so much for sharing your story today. And thank you so much for being on my podcast.
ACHONWA: Thank you for having me. You’re so well-spoken and such a little sparkle to your eye. I’m really glad I was able to be a part of your podcast. Keep doing what you’re doing because you are the next generation and I’m excited to see what you do.
PERSLEY: Thank you so much for those words. Bye!
PERSLEY: Big thank you to Natalie Achonwa and the Indiana Fever for making that awesome interview happen. As always, you can find me on Instagram @dishwithpepper, and please subscribe to The Next for more amazing content like this. Thank you all for listening.