The Indiana Fever have a budding star in Natalie Achonwa. But before she encountered success as a pro, she was dealt with a blow of adversity — tearing her ACL her senior year. However, what makes Achonwa special is how she responds to adversity.
When I spoke with Natalie Achonwa, I was taken aback by her calm and collected demeanor. At just 22-years-old, Achonwa has spent her entire life performing at the highest level, and fresh off officially signing her first WNBA contract earlier this year, most young adults her age display a sense of precaution that comes with facing their first major life decision alone.
Achnowa, on the other hand, has faced enough trials to project a sense of wisdom far beyond her years.
“I think going through my time at Notre Dame and having the ACL injury when I did, the way I did, helped me develop a sense a patience,” Achonwa says. “When most people have something like that happen to them, their minds start to race, and they think their career is over, I wasn’t really in that mindset ever. I knew I tore it, but the only thing I could think about was my role on that team to motivate them and keep them focused.
“I know I would be concerned and distracted if my teammate went down, so my job in that moment was to keep them grounded.”
Achonwa’s maturity and focus were traits that her professional team, the Indiana Fever, also saw in her, and they drafted her to the team in 2014. She took an unusual route to fill her time off while recovering from her injury, by becoming the interim Director of Operations for her alma mater, Notre Dame.
“I see that year in between college and the pros as a blessing,” she says, “Most kids are thrown into that, and they have no time to really grasp what’s happening to them. There were a lot of positives that came from sitting out that year. I had a lot of time to grow mentally and emotionally into being a pro before I physically became one.
“It actually benefited me a lot.”
Natalie has the unique ability to see situations for what they are, and learn from them, rather than go down the rabbit hole of “what if?” Seeing her sport from the view of the Director of Operations, also allowed her to gain a whole new appreciation, for what goes into making a successful collegiate basketball team.
“It was really nice to see the other side. As a player, you have everything done for you. I developed a new appreciation for the people who dedicate their time to you, often without getting the credit they deserve.”
“At first it was a little weird,” Natalie laughs. “These were people I was playing with five months ago, and now here I am, trying to instruct them on their itinerary for the upcoming game. It worked out well, though, because I was always known as the mom of the team, so for me to step up in that capacity wasn’t a stretch.”
Achonwa’s experiences have not only offered her a chance to develop mentally as a player; they’ve also made her a more well-rounded person. “Honestly, I think it would be beneficial for players to have time like that to find themselves before they have to jump straight into the pros. There is something to be said for that time.” Achonwa says wisely.
Hailing from Canada, but playing primarily in the United States, many people would struggle between staying connected to their home country and leaving it behind to find success in another. Achonwa’s wisdom though supersedes this.
“Anyone who knows me, knows that I love my country and that Canada is always number one in my heart,” says Achonwa. “That’s not even a question. For me, the United States has offered me the opportunity to fully follow my dream, but I represent both countries to the best of my ability at all times, there is never any doubt though I am a true Canadian!”
Although Natalie is a very composed individual, she made a surprising admission about her feelings towards being drafted. “Honestly I contemplated not even attending the draft,” she says, “with my knee, I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle being in the room and not having my name called. I didn’t think I could keep it together.
“I was nervous the entire time, when my name was called, every emotion I held in came out. The fact that a team gambled on me and believed in my abilities enough to wait a year. People ask me how do I have such an even head on my shoulders, and I tell them, ‘it’s because I owe the Fever. I owe them for believing in me, so I’m trying to repay my debt.'”
Indeed, she is off to a good start repaying that debt. Her professional debut in the Fever’s home opener garnered her an impressive 14 points and 5 rebounds. And she’s been on a tear ever since, scoring double digits in 70% of the Fever’s contests, while starting 10 out of 11 games. Achonwa was also recently named WNBA Rookie of the Month for the month of June.
“My goal for every game is to be the best player I can be in order to help my team. When I’m on the court I know I’m expected to get rebound and score when the ball is given to me,” she says, “I’m surrounded by amazing women, and I get to make my mistakes and have them guide me in the right direction.
I’m a work in progress, and I’m just lucky that I have a team and a coach behind me who are there to make me into the best person and best player I can be.”