Natalie Ochonua is always on to something.
As captain of Canada’s women’s basketball team, a veteran of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, treasurer of the WNBPA Executive Committee, a face of Adidas Canada, and a soon-to-be mother, Achonwa is always on, off and on the basketball court.
The 30-year-old Toronto native says that being busy and having multiple careers is just the fact that she’s a basketball player, but it’s also something she genuinely embraces. After all, Achonwa is all about being representative of the next generation of Canadian dance players to look up to.
After a busy stint that included helping Team Canada finish fourth in the 2022 FIBA World Cup and announcing her pregnancy, we caught up with Ochonua to discuss the growth of women’s basketball in Canada, becoming more of a public figure, its partnership with Adidas Canada, and bringing the WNBA team to Toronto. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I am a firm believer that acting and seeing yourself in people is important. Whether it’s just seeing a woman on an NBA broadcast, seeing a Canadian represent Adidas, being a Canadian in the WNBA, or being a Black woman who owns multiple properties – whatever that representation I can be, publicity allows more people to be seen. themselves whatever they want to be.
For people who don’t know, take me through your basketball journey. When did you start playing ball, and how did you get to this point?
I really started playing basketball by accident. I had a growth spurt and it was my soccer coach who introduced me to her by basically saying, “Hey, you’re kind of tall. Maybe you should try basketball.” This is where he originally started. It wasn’t that I was naturally talented in rings or that I had such a long dream and aspirations to play professionally. They’ve kind of evolved over the years, and a huge contribution to that dream and development has been Canadian basketball.
I was first introduced to Canadian basketball at the junior national team level, and then soon I was called up to the senior team at the age of 16, the Olympic team for which I am now playing. I was a very awkward player, a bambi player, and new to the game. So I had a lot of faith that Canadian basketball had instilled in me and saw at such a young age to attract me and play alongside women. I was playing with professional athletes and quickly learned that it was best to be a sponge at that point and absorb as much as possible from the vets I was surrounded by.
Former coach Allison McNeil has always said that Canadian basketball is the best kept secret in Canada. Because at that point, we didn’t necessarily have the fame. We weren’t at the Olympics. We didn’t have partnerships with Sportsnet as we were seen and watched in Canada. So there was a lot of work in the trench. And that was when the true nucleus of Canada’s first basketball team was developed, and I was very fortunate to learn from and be a part of some of the greats to play basketball in Canada.
It must be crazy to think how far the program has come in the following decade, from an international afterthought to a country ranked fifth in the world, right?
Definitely. The growth has been phenomenal, not only in the results we are producing, but also in the level of talent. Some of the young women who are playing in college now and even in high school, are taking the plunge. So the sport alone is very different than when I was growing up.
But it’s great to see that growth in the game, and for us to keep growing you have to challenge yourself. For a while, we’ve been making strides: First Olympics in London 2012, we were the last team to qualify and we’re glad to be there. And then, in Rio 2016, we had more expectations because our level of play had grown and so we were expecting to do a little bit better. Then I think Tokyo 2021 was where it was like ‘podium or bust’. And I think we’re putting too much weight on ourselves — putting too much pressure on ourselves and almost stifling our dreams.
And that brings us to the present, which we kind of called the “Lapina Era” with our new head coach, Victor Lapina. We’re trying to take those next steps in shifting our culture into a winning mindset, he likes to say. And that’s really focused on work and invested less in results. When you have that winning mindset and when you choose to focus and commit to work, results will come.
When you think about all the Canadian female talent we have in high school and college now, how excited are you about the future of the Canadian program?
I’m so excited. For one, like I said, a mix-up—I don’t call myself old. I’m not exactly in the old category, but mixing the old with the new is definitely an exciting time for basketball in Canada. To be able to take what I call the “pro slow” thought process of accuracy and understanding the game and breaking down the game and using that intellectual side of the game – which has been my specialty for years – and combine with this new era of sports, speed, how great athletes these young women really are: mixing That together and the creation of a new Canadian basketball is very exciting. I can’t wait to see what levels and growth Canadian basketball can reach, because we truly are without a ceiling.
yes! We need a WNBA team. But looking deeper, we need a professional league in Canada.
Outside of the national team program, how have you seen the growth of the game of basketball in Canada since you were young? Are more young women being inspired to play?
I think of two big points that kind of changed and excited basketball fans in Canada, and one of course is the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA championship in 2019. And of course that’s men’s basketball. It’s not the same thing. But I think about how everyone, the whole nation, can come together and see the power of sports and see the power of basketball. You had people from all walks of life come together to celebrate the Raptors, and I think this is going to change your basketball fan base no matter the league or the team. This really made not only people in Canada but outside of Canada realize that we are more than just a hockey country. We support — we love basketball here in Canada.
And I think the second part is women’s basketball on TV. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know the WNBA existed. And now with Canada Basketball and the WNBA appearing regularly on Canadian television, it helps keep women’s basketball top of people’s minds to continue cultivating that appetite for it. Because I definitely think there is a market for women’s basketball in Canada. And I don’t think we’ve really taken full advantage of that and benefited from it because the support is there but unfortunately we only see support once in a while like during the Olympics and other major events.
One way we can take advantage of some of that support is to bring a WNBA team to Toronto. How important is that?
yes! We need a WNBA team. But looking deeper, we need a professional league in Canada. We always talk about 144 with the WNBA: There are 12 teams and 12 athletes per team. It’s really hard to get and stay in the WNBA. So yes. We need a WNBA team here in Toronto – in Canada, but I’m partial to Toronto. We need a team here because it’s the best league in the world.
You mentioned the local league. Given that Canadian girls are dropping out of organized sports at an alarming rate, could local basketball leagues (like the new Canadian Women’s Soccer League) help motivate more of them to stay in basketball and pursue a career?
Yes, we also need a league. And maybe it’s the selfish thinking of Canadian basketball and the growth of the game in Canada, but we need more development for women’s basketball, and that comes from getting my league. Look at the CEBL and the success they’ve had in Canada on the men’s side, and why can’t we, I don’t want to say repeat it, because women’s basketball is very different, but the model of having a professional league in Canada, why can’t we work with them? Or why is nothing similar developed on the part of women?
And so to grow the game in general, our talent pool. You have a lot of female athletes who quit basketball earlier than they should because the only option is to graduate college, you can’t get into the WNBA because it’s hard to get into, and you go overseas. And as someone who has played in multiple countries abroad and loved the experiences I had from them, it takes a different person, it takes a different breed to live that life. It’s not for everyone. And so I think having a league in Canada is going to be huge for the growth of the game. And selfishly, for Canada Basketball to continue to expand our pool of athletes.
I’ve been personally playing in front of the crowd lately, appearing on TV broadcasts over the summer and in some recent photo shoots with adidas Canada. Why did you adopt this role as an outspoken advocate for the sport?
For me, it was never about being in public. A lot of the decisions I make in court in terms of brand partnership and in terms of TV commentary has been to build a platform that allows me to give back and impact the lives of girls and boys in a different way.
Growing up, I didn’t watch the WNBA on TV, and I’m a firm believer that acting and seeing yourself in people is important. Whether it’s just seeing a woman on an NBA broadcast, seeing a Canadian represent Adidas, being a Canadian in the WNBA, or being a Black woman who owns multiple properties – whatever that representation I can be, publicity allows more people to be seen. themselves whatever they want to be. And I think it’s important to have people to look up to, and so I take any opportunity I get to do that. I think that’s really the “why” of what I do, and why I think the transition in my career has been to be more outspoken and hopefully a role model for the next generation.
In general, the WNBA is at the forefront of advocating for many social issues, including the COVID vaccine and Black Lives Matter. They have been far ahead of most other leagues when it comes to some of their social work. As someone who sits on the WNBPA’s executive committee as a treasure, why is the WNBA so progressive?
We’re kind of thrown into this world of social justice and I think a lot of it stems from the fact that the majority of our union is black women. And we are already double cons in society, right? We are black and we are women. And I think we instinctively just want to help others. We instinctively want to improve the lives of others. And whether it’s from our own travels, our own experiences, or just echoing around us in our communities, it’s just something we do.
Plus, you add Dorina’s education and Dorina’s intelligence—you can only get into the WNBA if you’re a college graduate or over the age of 22. So I think that also comes you have this inner drive to help others along with learners who are thoughtful and articulate and work together. I think that what creates such a huge strength of the WNBA is that we get to decide what we want to do and when to attack it. We do it with full force.
Before we let you go, in the NBA this season, we’re seeing more Canadians achieve success than ever before. Are you looking forward to the day when the Canadians start taking over the WNBA in a similar fashion?
Yes, of course. I can’t wait for the day when this is the norm and we don’t have to do the numbers. I know we have three Canadian players in the NBA now, but two years ago, we had seven. And so I can’t wait for the day when this is the norm and it’s not just the three of us. It is a legitimate opportunity and goal for Canadians to play in the WNBA.
And again, I think having this team in Toronto, in Canada, will also make that difference, by allowing girls to have a purpose to aspire to.
To find out more, head over to Adidas basketball website.