Q&A: Natalie Achonwa on Team Canada, the WNBA grind and fighting for equality

Canada forward Natalie Achonwa (11). (Nathan Denette/CP)

Six-year WNBA veteran, and Toronto native Natalie Achonwa has seen and experienced just about everything one can as a person navigating the world of professional women’s hoops.

From learning how best to juggle playing professionally in both the WNBA and abroad, along with her national team commitments, to becoming a leader in the ongoing fight for social justice like many of her WNBA peers, there isn’t much down time to be found on Achonwa’s busy calendar and this year promises to be that much busier.

After six seasons with the Indiana Fever after getting drafted by them with the ninth-overall selection in the 2014 WNBA Draft, Achonwa switched teams in the off-season, signing with the Minnesota Lynx in free agency and teaming up with fellow Canadian national team member Bridget Carleton.

And speaking of the national team, this is obviously an Olympic year and Achonwa and her No. 4-ranked Team Canada have the goal of bringing home some hardware from Tokyo when the Games roll around in late July.

For now, however, Achonwa is busy preparing for the WNBA season, having recently returned from playing professionally in Italy. The life of a professional women’s basketball player seems like many things, but boring it certainly appears not to be.

Sportsnet had a chance to speak with Achonwa last week where we covered ground on a number of topics, including the grind she and others like her go through on a yearly basis, why she decided to join the Lynx, Team Canada and what she plans to do to keep the conversation for racial equality progressing.

Note: This is interview has been edited for clarity.

Sportsnet: You were playing professionally in Italy. How did your season over there go and why did you decide to sign a contract playing there in the first place?

Natalie Achonwa: So, a little background. I [was] playing in Schio, Italy for Familia Schio Basket and I initially [went there] as a replacement player for somebody that got injured.

So I was really only supposed to be [there] until about Christmas but a couple things happened and the team needed me to stay longer and asked me to stay longer, so I signed a one-month extension and then signed another extension.

The reason why I signed originally for a short-term contract is the European season is really long, it’s about eight months. I tend to like to play in Asia where the season is 4-5 months or sign short-term contracts as a replacement player in Europe so I can keep my quote-unquote off-season to a limit.

SN: You’re back from Italy now and are preparing for the WNBA season. Where do you do so, and what’s your routine like?

Achonwa: I have a home in Indianapolis and I have a team with a strength coach and physio and stuff who I work with in Indianapolis. So I’ll head back there where I’ll have about a month to train and then I’ll head to Minneapolis where I just signed with the Lynx for the next three seasons.

SN: Since you mentioned the Lynx, why did you decide to leave the Fever and sign with them?

Achonwa: A lot came into play for me because it took a lot for me to leave Indiana. Indiana is what I’ve deemed my second home. I’ve lived in Indiana for the past decade since I went to Notre Dame and the last six seasons with the Fever. So I knew that the fit had to be right for me to make this next step but, at the same time, it was a very necessary step in my career.

I’m going to a franchise that has a legacy of winning, that knows what it takes to win, that has a Hall-of-Fame coach and also a Hall-of-Fame teammate in Sylvia Fowles. So I want to win a championship and this is the way to do it.

I’m joining a great franchise and am also super lucky that given the past year and a half that I’ll be able to play with my Canadian teammate Bridget (Carleton) and be able to get some fellow Team Canada training since we haven’t been able to train with COVID restrictions. So at least this summer I’ll be able to play with her in preparation for the Olympics.

Natalie Achonwa, left, during her time with the Indiana Fever. (Mike Carlson/AP)

SN: Did you have contact with Carleton when you were making your decision to join the Lynx?

Achonwa: I had connected with Bridget before I agreed or signed with the Lynx.

I actually was Whatsapping with her, we connected and I asked plenty of questions about how Coach [Cheryl] Reeve coaches, how the team is, how the players are, did she think I would fit in on and off the court with my leadership style? I really asked her the ins and outs and Bridget answered all of my questions.

So I did lean on her for some insight before I even signed with Minnesota.

SN: Turning attention to Team Canada now, the squad had a virtual training camp near the beginning of February. How did that work?

Achonwa: It was more of a tactical training camp. There was a break within European/overseas seasons for national teams and, unfortunately, while other teams were able to get together and train, with the regulations and the restrictions in Canada right now we weren’t able to because the players were all overseas — or the majority of our team is overseas and abroad in different countries.

So with the regulations of either going to Canada or coming back to their teams it just wasn’t possible for us to get together. So we did a virtual training camp where we spent about two hours a day on a Zoom call doing everything from team building to mental training with our sports psych, to tactical stuff, watching film, breaking down film. It was a tactical week via Zoom.

SN: How difficult has it been knowing that the national team can’t get the work in with each other like you would under normal circumstances?

Achonwa: It’s been challenging. Especially this past national team break and especially since other teams were able to train together and get together and we weren’t.

But a benefit and an advantage that we’ve always had as Canada Basketball is our cohesiveness and togetherness, and being able to at least do this virtual Zoom that’s kept us all on the same page and keeps us in touch with each other and in tune with each other.

And it wasn’t just that week. We meet almost every two weeks on Zoom just to connect and see where everyone’s at and go through anything new that we have. So it’s definitely been a challenge but I have to give kudos to our coaching staff and our support staff for being creative and making sure that we can have some connection regardless of where we are in the world right now.

Canada’s Natalie Achonwa (centre) drives to the hoop. (Frank Gunn/CP)

SN: From needing to juggle playing professionally abroad, to your WNBA season as well as your national team responsibilities, your schedule seems very packed. How do you juggle it all?

Achonwa: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s a grind. Being a women’s basketball player is a grind. It’s not easy at all and that’s, honestly, why I signed a short-term contract between the season in Italy [that] actually goes until mid-May.

But, like I said, I know at this point — seven years being a pro — I know what my body needs, and I know what my body can take and I know its limits. And I know that playing a whole eight-month European season, playing an entire WNBA season and playing on an Olympic national team is not it for my body. So that’s why I’ve had to be creative with my contracts and what I’m doing in the off-season by signing short-term contracts in Europe, or kind of focusing on playing in Asia with the shorter seasons is what works for me.

That allows me to have a month or two right before the WNBA season to be able to train and get in the gym and start to build some muscle and some skill that will, hopefully, allow me to maintain over the season because it’s a long year. It’s hard on the body.

SN: How did you figure out how to juggle this kind of hectic schedule? Did you take pointers from anyone else?

Achonwa: It’s just figuring out what works for you. I have teammates and I have friends that can just hoop all the time, that play on multiple teams a year overseas and then come play WNBA and then play for their national team. So I know people that can just hoop, but I also know my limits and this has been a learning experience for me early on in my career.

I think I’ve had the benefit of being integrated at a professional level since a young age. When Allison McNeill took me in on the senior national team at 16 and when I was playing with pros at that age I was able to see their experience in watching my teammates like Tamara [Tatham] and [Lizanne Murphy] and Kim [Gaucher] and how they went overseas and were playing that long of a season in Europe. I was able to get a taste of it and see it before I got to that point where I was playing professionally myself.

So that’s just kinda been something that I figured out what worked for me and kind of just rode with it because, at the end of the day, you only have one body and when my basketball career ends I do need to be able to run, to play and to be able to enjoy my life at a capacity that my body still works.

SN: Given how much you have to juggle, how often are the Olympics on your mind? There is, after all, some runway here until July.

Achonwa: The Olympics are always in the back of my mind because playing for the national team and playing for Team Canada is ingrained in who I am. That is my identity in who I am not only as a basketball player but as a person.

Representing my country is always in the back of my mind, but on a more focused level, the Olympics doesn’t just come around every four years, it’s every day for four years.

So we’ve had events that have been part of our preparation, that have been part of our journey to get to the Olympics. So, yeah, when we get there that’s the final tournament, the final hurrah, but it’s something that’s been building for four years, and now it’ll be five, I guess, until we actually play in the Olympics.

So it’s something that’s always ingrained in training and everything that I do because we want a medal. We want to stand on that podium at the end of this 4-5 year cycle here.

SN: Lastly, the players of the WNBA were leaders last summer in the fight for racial equality and social justice. What do you plan to do when the WNBA season rolls around and even with the national team to progress this conversation?

Achonwa: I think one thing is having conversations. That will always continue. And that’s even within my national team and with our national team program.

I’m excited to get to Minneapolis because the Lynx is an organization that’s known for their activism and known for using their voice and their platform. So I’m excited to get to Minneapolis and see how I can ingrain myself in the community and how I can help improve and build on what the Lynx have been doing.

So we’ll see specifically what I get into this summer, but I’m just excited to be part of a group that knows it’s always bigger than basketball and that, with this platform that we’re so fortunate to have, that it is vital that we use it to help those around us.

SN: Just before I let you go, do you have a message you want to get out there?

Achonwa: Just tune in.

A reminder that the WNBA season is this summer, the Olympics are this summer, that there’s a lot of women’s basketball to be watched this summer.

Although we can’t have fans in the stands you can support us by turning on our games, sharing posts, buying merch, whatever you can do to be able to spread the love, spread the game. I think it’s not only for the next generation, it’s for anyone and everyone that loves good basketball.

Tune in, watch the games, buy a jersey, support women’s hoops.

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