Canada's run at FIBA Women's World Cup reward for Natalie Achonwa's perseverance
Veteran says playing for national team is a return to her roots
Natalie Achonwa has plenty of reasons to smile these days.
The 25-year-old from Guelph, Ont., set career highs in points (10.3) and rebounds (6.9) this past season with the WNBA's Indiana Fever, and has used her rebounding and defensive tenacity to help Canada reach the quarter-finals at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, where Canada will play the host nation — second-ranked Spain — on Friday.
"I always say that coming back to Canada Basketball — it's like a refresh on the soul," Achonwa said at training camp earlier this month. "It feels good, it feels like I'm getting back to my roots."
Achonwa has, for all intents and purposes, grown up within the national program. She played on the junior team before, in 2009 at age 16, she became the youngest player to play on the senior team.
Putting on the Canadian jersey is a love Achonwa says is "embedded" — a far contrast from her first training camp when she was in tears because it was so much to take in at the time.
"We used to do 40-day, 40-night training camps out in Abbotsford, B.C., and they'll never let me forget it either," Achonwa recalled. "Only Kim [Gaucher] will remember it now, but I cried that training camp because [former coach] Allison [McNeill jokingly] said, 'You guys can go home.' It was two days early and I was like, 'Are you guys serious? Are you joking?'"
From there, Achonwa continued her ascent, making history in 2010 by becoming the first non-American player to suit up for Notre Dame's women's basketball program.
Under the watch of Naismith Hall of Fame coach, Muffet McGraw, and playing alongside future WNBA all-stars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Kayla McBride, Achonwa thrived in her four years at South Bend, Ind.
The Canadian played a key role in the Fighting Irish's three national championship game appearances in four years, leading the team in scoring (14.9) her senior year en route to being named to The Associated Press' All-American Team.
"I've been fortunate throughout my entire career to play for and with some of the best in the world. Coach McGraw — I rank her really highly on my list," Achonwa said. "Like my parents, she's up there because she's somebody that in a big developmental period of my life was like another mother and taught me as an individual as well as a basketball player."
That character was put to the test when Achonwa's collegiate career came to an abrupt close when she tore her ACL and both menisci in her left knee with just under five minutes remaining in Notre Dame's regional final game.
As team captain, Achonwa knew that she couldn't leave her team on those terms, especially with a spot in the national semifinals on the line.
So before heading to the locker room, Achonwa put on a brave face and addressed her teammates one last time.
"I didn't know I tore my ACL but I knew that my knee was done. I knew that I wasn't playing anymore so at that point, it instantly went to think outside of myself … a rally cry was all I could give them because physically I wasn't going to be able to be on the court," Achonwa said. "I needed them to take me out of their mind, compete, and finish that game because at the end of the day, if we won that game, I won it as well."
Shortly after, Achonwa was drafted ninth overall in the 2014 WNBA draft and while it was a realization of a lifelong dream, she wasn't exactly where she wanted to be.
Achonwa sat out that entire season rehabbing her knee and admits that each day she doubted if she'd ever play basketball again.
"Taking something that's so ingrained in me away, it's hard to figure out how to motivate yourself because it's like, 'I can work through this practice or workout because I know that I'm going to have a game to play in,'" Achonwa said. "So when I'm sitting on a table the first day of rehab and my trainer is like, 'Do a quad lift!' and then my leg doesn't move, that's a mental and emotional [challenge] and I'm breaking down because I'm like, 'Why isn't my leg moving?'"
What got Achonwa through each day of rehab was learning to take the positives from each session. She celebrated every small win, even if was simply just doing one quad lift.
Achonwa returned to the court in 2015, making the WNBA All-Rookie Team and helping Canada win gold on home soil at the Pan Am Games.
While Achonwa would never wish an ACL injury on anybody, she has tried to see the positive in it. In her view, it has helped shape the person she is today. But Achonwa's comeback wasn't necessarily about going back to her old self, she wanted to build somebody new or as she puts it "Natalie 2.0."
Four years after her devastating injury, Achonwa finally feels like she's at that level and confident to compete with the world's best.
"Everyone asks, 'What was the jump for you this year?'" Achonwa said. "My body has caught up to my mind … the things that I'm thinking I can physically do and not have to worry about the body … all the work that was put in, I'm getting the reward for it now."