March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.
Today, we connect with Nneka Ogwumike, a WNBA champion, the 2016 league MVP and All-Star who was the top overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft. A native of Tomball, Texas, outside Houston, Ogwumike was also a member of the 2014 U.S. Women’s National Team that captured the FIBA World Championship.
USA TODAY: Congratulations on your 2017 season, and the run to back-to-back Finals! What was that experience like?
NNEKA OGWUMIKE: Going to the Finals at all is amazing. To win it the first time you go, not many people can say they’ve done that. We’ve developed a culture in L.A. that resonates with championship play and that environment. It’s been an honor to be in the Finals and win it two years ago, that was phenomenal.
As the season was unfolding in 2016 the MVP wasn’t something I was thinking about. I was just enjoying the moment and having fun. When it came down to the end and you realized what might happen was pretty cool. To be in the running was amazing, to be crowned was surreal to me. It didn’t feel like I did it myself, it felt like an honor that could have gone to everyone who helped me get where I was.
USAT: What role did the collective group do in helping you become a champion and an MVP.
NO: I’ve been playing with three of my teammates since I’ve been a professional. Along the way we’ve had a lot of great pieces come and go, but the core group extended to those we acquired in recent years. We have a very strong bond that not only shows itself on the court but has also developed into great relationships and friendships that will outlast our careers.
USA TODAY: When did you first know that you wanted sports to be a critical part of your life?
NO: I was a bit of a late bloomer. I didn’t start playing until I was 11. I didn’t realize until closer to my junior year in high school that I had some exponential growth and I realized the opportunity basketball could get me as far as going to an amazing university. While I was at Stanford I learned a lot about how basketball could be applied to my schoolwork. Now I’m utilizing all the tools I learned through basketball and being at an exceptional school toward being a great player and a successful businesswoman.
USAT: Why is participation in sports so important for girls today?
NO: I think that a lot of girls in sports they have almost an advantage because just simply by the nature of the woman you can gain a lot out of sports. You can develop relationships with people that last. You can develop skills that a lot of people don’t consider when it comes to having life skills and being part of the team. You can set individual goals en route to team goals, and all those things can be really empowering in a society where we have such a push for the woman right now. I don’t see any better place to do that than in sports.
USAT: What was your favorite sport growing up, and why?
NO: Basketball ended up being my favorite sport because I appreciated — I enjoyed volleyball as well — but the edge that you had with basketball was that you got to interact with your opponent much more than in volleyball. In basketball you use every ounce of athleticism and basketball IQ. The camaraderie is palpable, and I really enjoy that.
USAT: What is the biggest life lesson you took away from competition?
NO: Not to underestimate myself. One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford: Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re right. People have different skillsets, but the biggest limitations are the ones that start from ourselves. Those are the ones that keep us from being great.
USAT: Why is being a role model for younger girls important to you?
NO: I think that this has always been a subject that has been up for discussion with athletes. We do what we can to the best of our abilities without the intention of being role models, but the responsibility is inevitable. Once you understand that you can just do your best and impact lives the best you can. Kids watch you. They do more of what you do than what you say. If we want to be able to empower young girls and young kids in general, that’s what we have to do.
USAT: What should girls do who don’t have access to a sport they want to play?
NO: I haven’t been in that position before, but I could imagine it’s similar to kids who want to play a sport but don’t catch it right away. If they don’t have the resources or opportunity to play the spot they want to play, go for the second best option. It’s worth trying to discover the things you may not be sure of. It may help them discover what their true passions are. If I didn’t have basketball, I definitely would have tried volleyball. You can always look to the more positive side of things when the first option doesn’t pan out.
USAT: Did where you grew up play a role in your development?
NO: I would say so. I grew up in the suburbs closer to a rural area. The community was quite small, not tiny, but you were familiar with a lot of the people around you and the areas around you. Opportunity didn’t extend as far as in greater Houston. There were opportunities, and my parents had an option to put us in an environment that suited us. We had options, I had opportunities and the luxury to figure out what I did want to do. Our parents were adamant about all of us being versatile, I fell into basketball and I learned over time what made me happy about playing sports.
USAT: What else do you think is important for girls to know about sports and participating in them?
NO: I think that it’s important to break down the stigmas of result-driven endeavors. OBviously there are winners and losers, and there are scores and results. But there are so many pressures in society to go out and do it to be the best and only that. It’s important for young girls to know that you can find enjoyment and happiness from just playing and competing. Once you start there you can really become the best that you can be.
See more amazing girls and women at women.usatoday.com