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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

As Natalie Achonwa prepares for 4th Olympic Games, she couldn't be prouder to wear the red and white

In less than one month, Natalie Achonwa will record another first in her illustrious basketball career. The 31-year-old Senior Women’s National Team captain will become the first Canadian basketball player to represent their country in four consecutive Olympic Games.

Achonwa has already represented Canada in London (2012), Rio (2016) and Tokyo (2020). She feels grateful as she prepares to add Paris 2024 to her Olympic resume.

“I’m trying to be where my feet are,” Achonwa said. “This entire quad [since the Tokyo Olympics], my entire mentality has been to focus on the work. It’s just such an incredible honour to once again put on a Canada jersey.”

Achonwa’s career with Team Canada began when she was just 16 years old, making history as the youngest player ever to be named to the Senior Women’s Team in 2009. She was also the youngest player on the team’s London 2012 squad at 19-years-old. Today, 12 years later, Achonwa has played over 117 games with Canada across her chest.

A ninth overall draft pick by the Indiana Fever in 2014, despite an ACL injury that meant missing her entire rookie season, Achonwa spent the first six years of her WNBA career with the Fever before signing with the Minnesota Lynx in 2021.  

Her offensive skill set, rebounding, and off-the-charts basketball IQ enabled Achonwa to succeed at every level with every team she’s ever been a part of. As impressive as her work is on the court, Achonwa has been equally dedicated to her growth and development off of it.

Since becoming a WNBA player, Achonwa has worked tirelessly to grow the women’s game. She has served as treasurer of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association for the past four seasons while also regularly giving her time – and using her voice – to advocate for causes that are important to her. When she isn’t playing herself, she’s been an on-air analyst, helping to bring more eyes to the game she loves.

Every team member, including coaching and support staff, feels Achonwa's impact. When Víctor Lapeña took over as head coach of the Senior Women’s National Team in 2022, it was Achonwa who first reached out to catch him up on her teammates and help him get settled into his new role.  

“She is a special person for all of us, and for me especially, she is the person who helped me from the first day to feel that I’m the coach that they want [have], and to support at any moment,” Lapeña said. “I don’t have a lot of words, just that she's very special. She’s the captain. She’s the person who tries to keep in balance, all of us, on the court, but especially off the court.”

Natalie & Víctor at the SWNT Exhibition Game against Portugal in Victoria, BC.

That helping hand from Achonwa in Lapeña’s early days helped build an extremely tight bond and trust between the head coach and captain today. For someone as passionate about representing Canada as Achonwa is, it was impossible not to be excited about Lapeña’s arrival after seeing that shared passion reflected at her.

“It's such an honour to be able to be a part of Team Canada,” Achonwa said. “When I first met Víctor, that passion, he wears it on his face. It’s something that he does proudly and doesn't hide. When he made the transition to Canada Basketball, he dove right in and moved to Canada, he committed to Canada, committed to our team, our federation and our program.

“I hold loyalty, and I hold our commitments very highly,” Achonwa continued. “I think it was easy for us to be on the same page and for us to gel the way we have. I think it's because we're both very passionate and committed people.”

After becoming a first-time mom to son Maverick a little over a year ago, Achonwa knew she wanted to return to the court and play for Canada with her son by her side.

“I have been on this team for half of my life now, since I was 16,” Achonwa said. “Every time I come into this mix, regardless of new faces, old faces, it’s a feeling, the feeling of family and the feeling of love, and the feeling of being wanted and appreciated. I always try to pour back into that group, knowing that it has given me so much.

"Getting to see Mav in this environment makes it that much more special,” she said. “Seeing that he has so many people that he brings joy to and that love and care for him too [means everything].”

The leadership and support Achonwa has provided over the years hasn’t gone unnoticed by her peers. Teammate Kia Nurse often says that Achonwa was a mom to the team even before she became a mom to Maverick.

“It’s something that is just in my nature,” Achonwa explained. “To want to give, to help and take care of others. I love that by doing so, it creates such an amazing bond and welcoming environment.”

From the youngest rookie – ever – to a seasoned veteran and team captain, Achonwa doesn’t get much time to reflect at the moment, but whenever she glances around the gym and notices the youngest players on Team Canada’s roster staring back at her, it serves as a reminder of how far the game has taken her.

“It feels full circle,” Achonwa said. “When I see Avery [Howell] and Cass [Prosper] and the young players that are now part of this group, I see myself at that point. They’re a little bit older than I was, but it just feels so full circle. I always say that I stand on the shoulders of giants and I have been so blessed and fortunate to have been led by and learn from some amazing leaders and captains. I always try to leave the next generation better than I found it.”

Natalie Achonwa talking to her teammates at the FIBA Olympic Qualifiers in February.

When Canada kicked off its pre-Paris exhibition schedule with a victory against Portugal in Victoria, B.C., last Thursday, Achonwa led the way with 16 points in her first game since this past February’s FIBA Olympic Qualifiers, where Canada secured its spot in Paris.

Nirra Fields scored a game-high 18 points in the win, but after the game, she wanted to talk about Achonwa.

“She’s our leader, she’s the energy of the team, she’s the mom of the team,” Fields said. “She brings so much wisdom going into her fourth Olympics, my third. It’s great to be able to have her as a teammate, to learn from her and have her as our leader.”

Achonwa will have her son with her in Paris and she cannot wait to hit the court and begin the real work that the team has been preparing for. She was emotional during the anthem at Thursday’s game and says that after more than 100 games in a Canada uniform, the moment feels just as meaningful as that first game as a 16-year-old just beginning her basketball journey.

“We’re so close and we’ve worked so hard,” she says of the group that will represent Canada in Paris. “There’s four Olympics in a row for our women’s national team and I’m looking forward to creating the next Canada moment.”

After devoting more than half of her life to her national team, Achonwa says this will be her final Olympic games. She intends to make the most of every second.

“I’m ready for the games to come so that I can say this is my favourite Olympic memory,” she said. “This last one, the last time I tie my shoes up and I’m in the Canada jersey, I’m really, really looking forward to another opportunity on the biggest global stage.”