Nobody believed in the Canada Basketball Senior Women’s National Team heading into the ‘Group of Death’ at the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup in Sydney, Australia earlier this fall.
But that didn’t phase Team Canada or its captain Natalie Achonwa.
“When you have such a deep desire to compete, a deep desire to represent your nation at the highest level and to the best of your abilities, it feels like you can do anything,” the Minnesota Lynx forward said in sit down interview with Canis Hoopus in Minneapolis last week.
Achonwa led her team to fourth-place in the prestigious tournament, Canada’s best finish in a World Cup since 1986.
“That belief we had each other, in our staff, and in the work we did is really what brought us to that point and got us over the hump. We’d been so close before in the quarterfinals. We could never get over that hump,” Achonwa said in a proud tone. “It’s just another step in the journey, especially coming to Paris ‘24 with our goal of being on the podium.”
In order to get through the quarterfinals, Achonwa and her fellow Canadians played seven games in nine days. That stretch culminated with a 79-60 victory over Puerto Rico in which Achonwa earned Player of the Game honours by delivering 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a +19 mark in 26 minutes.
Although Achonwa catalyzed a good deal of Canada’s success with her play, she knows she can’t do anything alone. That understanding shines through in the way she elevates her teammates on and off the floor, like a good captain does.
“I take great honour in being the captain of my team. But it’s not a role that’s an individual role. I was very thankful to have some vets that helped me lead the way,” Achonwa said, unable to hide a big smile. “I’m just thinking of a conversation that I had with Kayla Alexander in my hotel room one night where she reminded me, ‘You don’t have to do it by yourself. We’ll be there right next to you and we go as you go.’”
In addition to Alexander, Achonwa’s Lynx teammate Bridget Carleton stepped up to help her captain. But that wasn’t without the aid of Achonwa’s leadership. I spoke to Carleton recently about her World Cup experience and she shared the role Achonwa played in her success in Sydney:
“She’s learned from some of the greats in our program. And so building a relationship with her the last two years in Minnesota has been really helpful for me in taking the next step with Team Canada. Just knowing that she’s seen me every day at practice and [knows] what I can do, and so she believes in me just as much as I believe in myself. So having her next to me, helping me learn from her in the leadership aspect, but also her faith in me and what I can do on the court has really been helpful in me having the confidence to do what I can do for the team.”
“And so sometimes I get worried about putting myself out there too much, but she pushes me and she makes me jump off the diving board instead of just walking into the shallow end type of thing. So, she’s been really helpful for me in terms of leadership, too, and I always rely on her and know I can text her whenever I need her help or need her advice. She’s definitely outspoken and she won’t be afraid to give it to me. So I’m really thankful for that.”
I read part of that back to Achonwa, who became increasingly emotional hearing the impact she made on a player who was selected to the Women’s World Cup All-Star Five.
“She deserved that All-Star Five. I’m glad she was able to do it on the world stage, because I knew and I know who the real Bridget Carleton is and the work that she puts in,” Achonwa said with a big smile, eager to praise her teammate. “The faith that I have in her ability, the faith that I have regardless of the shot goes in, I know that she is somebody that I will forever pick on my team to stand beside.”
“I‘m thrilled that she even said that I had any kind of piece in that, because all I do is cheer her on. I’m so proud of her. This is what makes it all worth it, right?”
Canada’s historic finish, given the external doubt and physically demanding circumstances, is why their performance in the 2022 World Cup is so special to Achonwa, who has made a habit of leading Canada Basketball to new heights over her 15-year playing career. The 29-year-old has committed more than half of her life to Canadian National Teams, between the Junior and Senior levels, and is taking time to smell the roses.
“This is probably sitting on the top. Revisit this conversation maybe when I retire, because I’m hoping I can continue to top that and that we can continue to top that. But, it felt very different this time around,” Achonwa said in response to a question about where the fourth-place finish ranks among all she has accomplished representing her country.
“I always talk about different points in your career and how you’re never the same person or the same athlete when you go through these experiences. So sometimes it’s hard to rank them because you’re a different person.”
10 years ago, Canada became the last team to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. As the team progressed to the Río de Janeiro Games in 2016, expectations started to build. The Canadians followed through by advancing to the quarterfinals and ultimately finished seventh of 12 teams. Then, when the Tokyo Games neared last year, Achonwa and her teammates felt the pressure associated with higher stakes and higher hopes.
“I think about Tokyo where we were holding on so tight that like, ‘This is our time!’ and that we almost suffocated our goals and dreams,” Achonwa admitted. “That’s where we come to this quad, where I am very invested and focused on the work.”
Editor’s Note: a ‘quad’ is a four-year cycle including a FIBA World Cup and Summer Olympic Games.
Achonwa is confident that intense experiences like those Canada Basketball endured in Sydney under first-year Head Coach Victor Lapeña will serve as a foundation the team can build upon heading into the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where Canada aims to medal. But instead of thinking too much about the weight of expectations, a word Achonwa has ‘thrown out’ because of the pressure it brings to leave with a medal, she wants her Canadian teammates to trust the work that comes in between now and the 2024 Paris Games.
“The success is in the work that we do (and the) commitment to this new ... Lapeña era, and putting the work into transforming our mentality into winners,” Achonwa said. “I think that’s where it’s changed. It’s been a little bit lighter [in terms of feeling pressure] when it comes to games.”
That’s going to be a change for Achonwa, who is as fierce of a competitor as you can find. The beloved veteran is used to harnessing that pressure into playing with intensity; Achonwa leaves everything she has on the floor every time she plays, because the captain takes great pride in representing her country and understands who is looking up to her while she plays.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Why does it matter to you so much?’ It’s something that’s literally been ingrained (in me). It’s in who I am. This honour, this commitment feels like my way of giving back to my country and to so many people along the way,” Achonwa said, leaning forward in her chair. “I think about all the coaches, the teammates and the people that have been a part of this journey, and the ones that will come next.”
“And [I think about] how simply playing in the World Cup [prompted] all the letters and the notes that I got afterwards about, ‘My girls watched the games and the reruns and we stayed up till one o’clock!’ and like how much that matters by just playing a game, just playing basketball.”
While Achonwa won’t have to carry as heavy of a burden on the floor as she does for Canada Basketball when she returns for her third season as a Lynx in 2023, her leadership will certainly be relied upon now more than ever.
“I have been very fortunate in my career to have great leaders and to be able to absorb and to follow in their footsteps,” Achonwa said, before pointing out a player that left an indelible mark on her.
The legendary Sylvia Fowles retired following the 2022 WNBA season after putting the final touches on arguably the greatest career any center has ever had — one that has Fowles destined for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although the Lynx’s heart and soul may no longer be there on the floor, Achonwa wants the Lynx to maintain the standard for excellence Fowles set.
“Syl retiring is going to leave a big hole. And that’s not even just from a basketball standpoint, that is from a personal (standpoint), a human, a gaping hole in your heart with Syl leaving. So I only hope that I could bring a sliver of who she is to the team,” Achonwa said after taking a moment to collect her thoughts about the beloved Fowles.
“Syl was ready to compete every day, regardless if that’s a Finals game or if that’s the first day in training camp. I hope that not only just me, but that everyone was fortunate enough to play with her on this team can bring that so that when we do have new players or different players coming in that we can together try to fill that hole.”
“Not one person can be Sylvia Fowles — ever — in this league, in this world. She was the greatest center to play the game. So I hope that we each can bring a little bit more and try to close that [hole] together.”
The other player Achonwa will look to fill that void with is two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier, who will return for a full season in 2023 after she missed most of the 2022 season due to pregnancy. Since Collier entered the league in 2019, Fowles has always been there to help her lead the team both on and off the floor. Now, the student will become the teacher in President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve’s system. Achonwa is confident Collier is up to the task.
“I don’t know if Phee needs help from me, at least, or from anyone. I think Phee is someone that will come into her own on her own,” Achonwa explained. “I believe that leadership is something that you have in you. It’s not necessarily something that you’re taught. You can see and gather information from other people, but when it’s in you, it’s in you, and I think Phee has it.”
“We only saw a piece of Mama Phee coming back last year but I’m excited to see how she comes in this year and has a bigger role without Syl here, and how she owns that in her own right.”
The Lynx may look very different next season, as the team currently has only five players under contract for 2023. But no matter who joins Collier and Achonwa when training camp opens next spring, the pairing will be looked to as leaders of a team ushering in a new era of Minnesota Lynx basketball.
A key figure in that new era will be selected in April’s draft.
‘Mama Phee,’ as her teammates now affectionately call her, brought the Lynx good luck as their representative at the 2023 WNBA Draft Lottery 10 days ago. Minnesota entered the draft lottery with the fourth-best odds in the lottery (a 14.45% chance of earning the No. 2 overall pick) but Collier delivered.
CONFIRMED:— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) November 11, 2022
Phee is our good luck charm. pic.twitter.com/SmSRglASZ1
“It‘s a very, ‘it was meant to be for us’ (moment) to have that because who gets a second pick with a 14% chance? I love those odds going into this year,” Achonwa said, chuckling.
The eight-year vet is excited to welcome in a rookie to the fold given the potential of the 2023 class. However, Achonwa isn’t placing too much stock into who that player may project to be now, because she knows first-hand that a player’s stock can change quickly.
Heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Achonwa was widely expected to be one of the first players selected in the first round of the 2014 WNBA Draft. Along with fellow Lynx teammate Kayla McBride, Achonwa led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and ACC tournament championship, vying to return to their fourth straight Final Four. The WNBA sent both Achonwa and McBride invites to attend the draft for their efforts.
Achonwa, the team captain her senior year, averaged a career-high 14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and a career-best 2.8 assists during the regular season. As if her Irish squad entering the Big Dance 31-0 wasn’t enough, Achonwa found a way to take her game to another level. She poured in 20.5 points on 71.4% shooting and secured 9.8 rebounds per contest as Notre Dame dominated its first three games of the tournament, winning by 51, 17 and 17 points, respectively. Achonwa capped off that stretch with an incredible Sweet 16 performance of 23 points on 10/13 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists, a career-high five blocks and two steals.
Then, a nightmare became reality.
After scoring 19 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds in front of her home crowd at Purcell Pavilion against Baylor in the Elite Eight, Achonwa’s left knee gave out with 4:51 to play in the game. She tore her left ACL, ending her storied career in South Bend.
Knowing full well the extent of her injury, Achonwa limped in the direction of her teammates to make her voice heard one final time while wearing a Notre Dame uniform.
“Win this shit!” she yelled at her teammates, drawing an eruption from the crowd.
In the blink of an eye, Achonwa’s draft stock took a major hit.
“I almost didn’t go to the draft,” Achonwa said while looking down, reliving those moments.
She said she called WNBA leadership to explain her situation, given she had already received an invite.
“‘I don’t know if I want to come. I don’t know if mentally or emotionally I have the strength to be able to sit in that room and not have my name called,’” Achonwa recalled. “They reassured me that it’s more than just that. It’s an honor to be able to reach this point in your career where you were invited to the draft and that it was something that I deserved.”
Achonwa decided to attend with her family. Having just had ACL reconstruction surgery, she had a plan mapped out for how she’d get up on stage when her name got called; but when that moment came and the Indiana Fever selected her No. 9 overall, everything went out the window.
“It was quite a thrill when my name was called,” Achonwa explained, before her laughter interrupted her recollection. “I remember throwing my crutches under the table and wobbling up there. I forgot we had done a whole walkthrough on how I was going to walk up the stairs because I couldn’t bend my knee and that all went out the door but I got to the stairs. I almost fell off the stairs, and I got up there.”
Needless to say, eight years later, Achonwa is very glad she made the decision to face those fears and experience draft night in-person.
“That is something that will be in the history books. My name will forever be written, regardless of what I do in my career, that I was drafted first round in the WNBA Draft in 2014,” she said slowly, in grateful tone, rocking back and forth in her chair. “So that is something that is a legacy for not only me, but for my family, and for everyone that’s been a part of this journey up to that point. So it was quite a thrill.”
In a way, that story wonderfully summarizes who Achonwa is as a person and as a player. No matter how tough the task is, improbable the victory is, real the fear is, or difficult the work is to achieve a goal, Achonwa confronts everything head on by pouring every ounce of her soul into what she does. She never quits.
Her first ever shot in a basketball game as a child sailed over the backboard out of bounds. So, what did she do? She didn’t let it phase her and she ran back to play defense. From that moment, she says her father knew she had something special about her. In the 20-plus years since, she’s maintained that attitude, overcome major injuries, and put together an incredible playing career that has taken her to 15 countries across five continents.
“Something that my parents instilled in me and my siblings was this mentality of ‘You’re never allowed to quit anything.’ It naturally developed into something of who I was and who I am,” Achonwa said. “So for me to be able to be at the draft, to hear my name called, to have my family, to hug my family in that moment symbolized a breath, a hurrah, like, ‘This is why it’s all worth it.’”
“Thankfully, I’ve had many of those moments in my career. And sometimes I’ve overlooked them and not been able to really grasp some of the feats that I’ve overcome or some of the accomplishments I’ve had in my career,” Achonwa said nodding her head, with a smile. “I’ve been so blessed to have so many moments that trump each other. Sometimes it’s hard to truly grasp that while you’re living it. But I think that’s something that I’ve been trying to focus on lately is making sure that I’m slowing down and smelling the roses, slowing down and enjoying the moments.”
“I don’t know many people who can say they’ve competed in three Olympics.”
So when the fearless Achonwa leads Canada to its fourth consecutive Olympic Games in 2024, you better believe that the beloved captain is coming to Paris with everything she has. But first, she’s got unfinished business with the Lynx, and will work to lead a reloaded squad back to the gold standard of the WNBA.