Managing the difficult return to play after having a child, Natalie Achonwa is nourished by thoughts of making life easier for working moms in sports

T he prospect of becoming a parent for the first time can be scary for anyone. The fear and anxiety are real, and amplified if you’re the one carrying the child — even more so if you’re Black. Add to all that the unique pressures of life as a professional athlete and you get a sense of some of what Natalie Achonwa contended with when she was pregnant with her first son, Maverick.

A WNBA vet and Canadian women’s national team captain, Achonwa always knew she wanted to be a mom. Even from a young age, her nickname among teammates was “Mama Nat.” She was the one who offered a shoulder to cry on, to lean on. And those same shoulders, carried the load for the group when something uncomfortable or tough needed to be done or said.

Like Serena Williams, Achonwa competed on the world stage while pregnant, competing in the FIBA 2022 World Cup  in her first trimester. After breaking the news, which had been kept secret apart from being shared with head coach Víctor Lapena and team doctors, Achonwa immediately shifted focus to her eventual return. “The one conversation I had with Victor, and continued to have with Victor, is that I want to make sure that if I’m on [the Paris 2024] Olympic team, that I earned a spot,” she told me. “I never want my tenure or the experience that I have or the fact that it would be my fourth Olympics to give me a spot on the team. I wanted to make sure that I earned a roster spot and that has been the conversation that we’ve had since I was pregnant.”


Lapena saw the new addition to the squad as a net positive. “Maverick is one of us,” he says. “When you have a baby, it’s always around. It’s giving you positive vibes so then now everybody likes to have Maverick around. But for us to do something special next Olympics, we need Natalie with us and Maverick, too!”

It’s one thing to break the huddle with cheer of “1-2-3 Family!” or “Together!” but those words get put to the test when someone vital to the organization decides to grow their family.

As a member of the WNBPA executive committee, Achonwa was instrumental in negotiating a now-landmark CBA, ratified in 2020. The agreement was truly intersectional, addressing issues of race and gender, and a key point Achonwa wanted to rectify with it was the maltreatment of mothers playing in the league. The 2020 CBA saw advances on that front, including guaranteed maternity leave with full pay, but that doesn’t mean conditions for working moms flipped overnight. Much has been made about the treatment of Achonwa’s friend and former teammate, Skylar Diggins-Smith, by Diggins-Smith’s current team, the Phoenix Mercury. And Dearica Hamby filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Las Vegas Aces and WNBA in the fall of 2023, alleging prejudice after she announced she was pregnant.

There are, of course, systemic threats and hurdles that extend beyond sport — especially for an athlete working in the United States. America is the most expensive country in the world in which to give birth. It is also the most dangerous, as the maternal mortality rate has risen for the last 15 years, according to the CDC. Black women bear that danger disproportionately, and are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

These are all issues Achonwa thought about even before becoming pregnant herself, and ones she wants to impact and educate people about when her career allows. But for now she’s got her hands full crisscrossing the globe with a newborn. Not yet a year old, young Mav has 16 stamps in his passport. And Achonwa’s excited to get him one more this summer, by suiting up for Team Canada at the Olympics in Paris.

Coming back and contributing at an elite level after giving birth is never easy — something my colleague, Kristina Rutherford, insightfully documented in her story on the “middle body injury.” And as I learned embedded with Achonwa both at a Team Canada training camp in Toronto and at her home in Indianapolis, the prospect of raising a Black boy while getting your career and body back on track is as hard mentally as it is physically. What keeps her going, though, is thoughts of the future and the women who will come after her, and finding ways to make being a working mom less difficult in sports and in society.

SPORTSNET: Before you were a mother yourself, you were outspoken in fighting for mother’s rights as an executive with the WNBPA. Where did that come from?

ACHONWA: For me, it was, ‘We’re a women’s league. Why do we not support mothers?’ or ‘Why do we not provide for mothers, given that we’re a league of mothers?’ And that’s whether you’re mothering your own child, your siblings, our communities — we are mothers innate in who we are, and so it just felt natural like this is something we should be advocating for. And fortunately, it’s benefitted me now that I’ve actually been put in that position as a new mother in the WNBA.

What are some of the benefits that mothers now enjoy?

There’s now a mother planning fund. You can tap into financial resources to plan having children — whether that’s invitro, freezing your eggs, or if you’re traveling or if your child is with you in the season, you’ll get an extra bedroom when you’re on the road so you’re able to take your child with you. There are certain things that are required to be in our facilities, whether it’s a nursing room or a fridge to store milk. Things that you think, given the year 2024, would have already been instilled in our league and our support systems, but they weren’t.


One of those steps we also took is that you have mat leave in the WNBA, and you know that your salary support is still going to be there, your health insurance is still going to be there. Previously, you received 50 per cent of your salary if you were sitting out or couldn’t play because you were on maternity leave. Now, it’s 100 per cent — something I was able to benefit from, and give my body and give myself the grace to get back to becoming a professional athlete and not feel like I must grind myself into the ground to be able to make sure I can still support my family. 

So, they’re huge strides that we took. But you know with any kind of change, you take these huge leaps and then you sit back and reassess. Now that I’ve gone through this, I can see some areas that we can continue to improve and continue to support our moms in the league.

What’s the physical toll of what you’re doing?

I’m a big believer in language matters, and so I don’t like to put injury and pregnancy in the same conversation because I think they’re opposite sides of the spectrum. But both have a recovery return-to-play process, and I think taking the time away that I did with my ACL injury was also like taking time away with maternity leave, and I think that helped me in my approach and in my mentality and in structuring my return to play.

When I did my ACL, I was hyper-focused on my knee. One day my knee hurt, so I just did less reps on it. Having a baby, growing a human, it’s a whole physical, mental, emotional journey. But the physical aspect, it’s a lot. And it’s not just the actual belly, it’s having your organs move back after the baby comes out, it’s having to re-establish any kind of core muscle. The other part is to make sure you’re eating enough calories when you’re breastfeeding. And then it’s the second job of feeding the baby and pumping. It is quite the toll physically and the culture of snapping back is non-existent in this household. Anything to get back to where I was is a lot of work and a lot of grit. That doesn’t even include the sleep deprivation, the getting up at all hours, but it takes a lot to keep a human alive. I have to grow a human and to keep a human alive. And be a professional athlete. It’s a toll.

Why did you want to come back?

So that I could own the narrative of how this journey goes and how this journey ends. This will be my fourth Olympics. I didn’t want to just fade away into the abyss. ‘Natalie had a baby and then she vanished.’ I wanted to be able to accomplish this feat. Grow a human. Come back. Own the narrative of how I hang up my Canada jersey. And that was important to me given that half my life has been spent in one.

The first public event you did post-baby was the WNBA game in Toronto [on May 13, 2023]. I saw you courtside and you had a fire Adidas fit and looked like you could still give people buckets. What do you remember about that time in your journey?

There’s two parts to that, one being the excitement, the thrill, the raw emotion of being at a WNBA game in Toronto. Being in that arena and feeling that atmosphere and knowing how important that moment was in the history of women’s basketball was something I knew I couldn’t miss. Now, take out the aesthetic that I looked like I could play basketball — I could not mentally and emotionally, leading up to that I was drowning. I was having a rough time after having Mav and I think I overpromised my return to being a working mom a little too early. I had a postpartum moment where I felt like I was watching my life [from the] outside. I’m so grateful for the people that surround me in my village and community that really carried me through those moments.

Would you say you were experiencing post-partum depression? 

I definitely feel like I was suffering from post-partum depression. And the hardest part was, especially as an athlete, you’re hyper aware of how you are mentally, physically, emotionally. And that’s the toughest part for me was that I’d had these conversations before, during and after that women often suffer from post-partum depression. I’m a big advocate for mental health, taking care of your mental health and being open and vulnerable to speaking to people about it. So, for me it was like, ‘It won’t be me.’ But the emotion, the hormones, everything that hits you, it was out of my control and that was the hardest part for me. I felt like I could see everything around me, but it felt like I was almost behind a glass watching my life.

Another aspect of being a mom is worrying about your child. You were so vocal during the racial reckoning in 2020 and beyond about the racism young Black people experience. I know, for me, when I now see a video like the killing of Eric Garner or George Floyd, I see my sons in those scenes instead of myself. What has changed for you now that you have Maverick?

Sometimes it feels selfish of me to have a kid. Like, to know everything that is going on in the world, to know the difficulties of being a Black family, it almost feels selfish bringing a child into the world. But I think when I talk about it or think about the other side of it, is always trying to do my part. And that has been part of the narrative, that everyone’s decisions making your community a little bit better makes the whole better. That is how my approach is amplified. Now I need to do a little more in the hopes that I’m making this community better. Because once again, selfishly, my seed is part of it, my child. And I’m not just trying to make it better for my life but in the hopes that I’m making the world a better place for Maverick and his kids and the generations after it. It’s given more fuel to the fire, for sure.

The passion for social issues, is that something you were raised with?

No, it’s literally just being me. You talk about especially, ‘Why is the WNBPA, why is this group of women, so active and so passionate and so at the forefront of a lot of things, in a lot of these conversations?’ It’s because we live it. We’re almost a double-negative in society, we’re women and we’re Black. It is in who we are. It is in our own struggles, our own difficulties, it is in our own journeys. It is in our own communities but it’s almost second nature for us, too, to be the example to lead in these roles. And that is true to who I am as well. Growing up in a multiracial family, some of the stories or challenges with my own family have fueled me, given me my passion for wanting to change the narrative.

Does “basketball family” mean something different to you now?

No. It doesn’t mean something different because nothing has changed. When we have that conversation about team, about family, that is something that has been part of this federation since I started. Yes, it’s special now that my son gets included in that conversation. But I can jokingly say I’ve had children for a while now.


But it feels full-circle. I remember when I was the kid on the team, when I was 16 and truly grew up in Canada Basketball with Lizanne Murphy and the Tatham sisters [Tamara and Alisha] and they were like raising me in a sense. And now I’m the OG, I’m the vet on the other side of this. Adding Mav to the equation feels full-circle for sure, but that family mentality is something that is synonymous with Canada Basketball.

Photo Credits
Kaiti Sullivan/Sportsnet; Sarah Del Angel/Sportsnet; Kaiti Sullivan/Sportsnet; Sarah Del Angel/Sportsnet; Kaiti Sullivan/Sportsnet.