Feb. 13, 2014
It's easy to expect greatness from Natalie Achonwa because of her impressive height, which at 6-3 is prototypical for a WNBA forward. However, what sets Achonwa apart from the rest of the pack is more than just her size.
Achonwa's zeal for a challenge and demand for the highest level of competition has allowed her to achieve what size alone would not have. It is this competitor's mentality, ingrained in her ever since she first picked up a ball, which has allowed her to blossom into a truly spectacular and unique player.
Achonwa's competitive instincts kicked in from a very early age. She claims with pride that she started playing soccer from when she could walk, but it wasn't until her middle school years that she was introduced to basketball, thanks to a push from her childhood idol and a fortunate coincidence.
"My older brother (Adrian) started playing basketball," she said. "Basically, whatever he did, I wanted to do, so I decided that I could try it out. Then it happened that my soccer coach also coached his daughter's basketball team. So those two things came together and I started playing basketball."
For the next several years, Achonwa would juggle both sports, but, despite the physical and mental demands of being a two-sport athlete, she always found a way to compete at the highest level in both. Even though basketball was, at the time, her "hobby sport," during the soccer offseason, she would play in the Canadian equivalent of AAU, something that Americans are familiar with as one of the most competitive levels of pre-collegiate play for basketball.
Achonwa's description of her elite basketball league as an offseason sport "more of just for fun" made it clear that competing at a high level not only comes naturally to her, but is also necessary for her enjoyment of the game.
"I've always been a competitor," she explained. "Any sport that I played was all about the competition, and basketball fit into that."
Because of her competitive passion, it is no surprise that when basketball presented her with the opportunity to play at a higher level than she ever had before, Achonwa jumped in with both feet and made the switch full-time from the pitch to the court.
"When I was 14, I played on our provincial team (in Ontario)," she recalled. "It was when I made that team that I realized, `Hey, I'm actually getting good. People are noticing that I'm not just tall any more, that I actually have a little bit of talent.'
"That's when I seriously got into the sport. That's when my coaches started to say that I could go on to (play) college basketball and play in the NCAA. That's when my interest started to grow, as well as my knowledge of collegiate basketball."
Because of her new commitment to basketball, Achonwa had to say goodbye to the sport she grew up loving.
"By the time I was actually looking next-level, I was fully involved in basketball, so I never got to the point where I did consider collegiate soccer," she said. "When I was younger, that's all I ever did. It was all I really thought about, but when I got to serious levels, it was all basketball, so I never really thought about soccer any more."
As difficult as it may have been to let go of an old love and embrace a new one, Achonwa's commitment to her new sport paid off in a big way. She finished her high school career as a highly-touted prospect and was courted by many schools in the United States. Ultimately, it came down to two conference rivals: Notre Dame and Louisville.
"In the end, the distinguishing factors were in the people and the academic aspect of it," Achonwa explained. "Not only was Notre Dame a private school and a Catholic school, but the education is just so advanced."
Beyond landing a spot on one of the most star-studded rosters in the NCAA, Achonwa's hard work and extraordinary play also earned her a spot on Team Canada's roster for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. When she was first added to the Canadian Senior National Team roster in 2009, she became the youngest selection in that program's history at the tender age of 16 years old. By age 19, Achonwa was the second-youngest women's basketball player competing in the 2012 London Olympics.
Being a teenager at the Olympics can be an overwhelming experience, especially when you're in such close proximity to some of your childhood heroes. While playing in the same Games as her favorite player, NBA great LeBron James, Achonwa employed her mature competitive instincts to keep from being star-struck and stay focused.
"The biggest thing when we were going to the Olympics was realizing that when you walk up to the Usain Bolts, or when you see the LeBron Jameses, and when you see the Serena Williamses, the fact that they're an Olympian, but you are too," Achonwa noted. "That's the biggest thing, and trying to stay away from the -- I guess you call it `fan-girling' and overly obsessing -- because they're here to compete, and you're here to compete."
Achonwa's play helped boost Canada to the quarterfinals in London, her nation's first medal-round qualification in 28 years in its first Olympic appearance since 2000. It also has helped her transition back to her role at Notre Dame, particularly this season as a starter and team captain while helping to propel Notre Dame to a No. 2 ranking. The squad has found success despite having to adjust to a new conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is widely regarded as the best in women's basketball.
"The BIG EAST was the best conference in my first three years, and now the ACC is the best conference," Achonwa said. "Partially, I think some of it was because we (Notre Dame) went there, but also it's because of the development of the ACC, with how many teams have come in, and the level of competition."
This season Achonwa has welcomed the challenge brought by Notre Dame's new conference. Despite the obstacles, the Fighting Irish have come through every game unscathed thus far. Achonwa herself missed the first three games of the season following preseason knee surgery, but has returned to average 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while ranking second in the ACC (and fifth in the nation) with a career-high .600 field goal percentage.
"I think every game we go into, you have to go in with the same mentality because every game we play is against a strong and very skilled opponent," she explained. "The ACC is so even in terms of how competitive each game has been, and you can tell from playing from Virginia to Duke, that even though they might be on somewhat different ends of the spectrum in the conference standings, when we played both of them, they were both competitive games. Every game that we play in the ACC is very competitive and that's what makes this conference so great."
Throughout her young career, Natalie Achonwa has faced the best players in the country, the best teams in the NCAA, and the best athletes in the world. After finishing her college career and earning her hard-earned degree from Notre Dame, Achonwa will look to continue her high level of competitive play next year in the WNBA and seek the new challenges the next phase of her career will bring.
-- Victor Diaz, Media Relations Student Assistant