Canada’s Natalie Achonwa earns WNBA’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership award

Canada forward Natalie Achonwa (11) has earned the WNBA's Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award. (Nathan Denette/CP)

NEW YORK — Legendary Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw says one of the first words that comes to mind about Canada’s Natalie Achonwa is leader.

The Fighting Irish grad and forward for the Indiana Fever earned the WNBA’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award on Friday, and McGraw was among the people applauding the decision.

“She was a phenomenal captain for us,” McGraw said in a video she posted on Twitter. “I remember when she tore her ACL just at the end of the Baylor game in the regional final, she didn’t care about herself, she popped up and started talking back to the team about how they had to win that game without her . . . we are so proud of Nat.

The award, named for WNBA Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, recognizes a player who best exemplifies leadership in the community, and focuses exclusively on a player’s activities during the NBA off-season.

“It is important for me to optimize the benefits and privileges I receive from being a professional athlete,” Achonwa said in a statement. “A big piece of that is using the platform I’m awarded to connect with people, promote a level playing field, and inspire others to make positive change.

“Through the ups and downs of my own personal journey, I have found that it is the little things that make the biggest difference. If we all focus on challenging the status quo of our own circles, and build from there, we can tackle the world and keep moving forward.”

The 27-year-old from Toronto stayed connected to fans and the community with “Nat Chat,” a social-media discussion in which she interviewed people prominent individuals about issues such as mental health and racial injustices. In June, she joined Tamika Catchings, George Hill and others in the Monumental March and the Voter Registration peaceful protest in Indianapolis.

Achonwa remains vocal about the ability for athletes to use their platforms to amplify awareness around racial injustice.

“The league is incredibly proud of Natalie as she continues to show her passion and determination for making the world a better place,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “As leaders of the community, Natalie and fellow WNBA athletes are socially conscious individuals who continue to show dedication to making a positive impact, and we’re fortunate to have such powerful advocates for change in the league.”

Throughout March, Achonwa spoke to young women from Indianapolis Public Schools to emphasize the importance of mental health and the need to end the stigma. Achonwa also participated in events around the NCAA’s Big 10 Women’s Tournament, speaking on a panel about resiliency and mental health in work and sport.

“An inspirational leader on every team and in every community she touches. Huge congratulations on a well-deserved honour from your ↕CanBball family, ↕NatAchon!!” Canadian women’s coach Lisa Thomaidis posted on Twitter.

Achonwa previously earned the 2019 Season-long WNBA Community Assist Award for her efforts that focused on mental health, anti-bullying and suicide prevention in addition to helping with education and literacy among youth, pet adoption and empowering women.

The WNBA will make a US$10,000 donation to Madame Walker Legacy Center on behalf of Achonwa.

The Fever tip off their revamped WNBA season on Saturday against the Washington Mystics. The WNBA teams are in their own bubble — nicknamed “the wubble” — in Bradenton, Fla.

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