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How Natalie Achonwa Fought to Return to the Olympics—and the Lynx

The seven-year WNBA vet has cultivated tenacity from a young age.
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Natalie Achonwa holds a basketball

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

With just more than nine minutes to play in the second quarter of the Lynx’ June 12 game against the Sparks, Minnesota forward Natalie Achonwa fell into a state of shock. Achonwa, one of the team’s major free-agent acquisitions last offseason, was rolling to the basket after setting a screen for 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield. As the seven-year WNBA veteran dived to the rim, she made contact with Los Angeles wing Nia Coffey and landed awkwardly. She heard a pop in her knee.

When initial tests revealed Achonwa avoided a season-ending ACL injury, she felt a slight sense of relief. Still, with the Tokyo Olympics looming, she started to wonder what her Grade 2 MCL sprain, which was set to keep her out four to six weeks, would mean for her availability in the Games.

“It was a five-year process to get to the Olympics,” she says. “And I knew it wasn’t something I was gonna let pass without a fight.”

That tenacity has long been ingrained in Achonwa. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, she recalls attending a two-week-long portaging camp at age 11 that she tired of after just three days. She phoned her mother, Marion, to inform her of her displeasure but was told she couldn’t leave. “Just stick through it,” her mother told her. It marked the first of three times Achonwa would take part in the experience. “I ended up loving it,” she says. “It turned into a positive of pushing me through something I didn’t want to do.”

Achonwa’s injury occurred four weeks to the day before she was set to join Canada’s Olympic team in Tokyo. Six weeks out from her collision, Team Canada was set to play its first game against Serbia. “The hardest part was the time,” she says. “That feeling that you’re running out of time.”

Throughout her rehab, Achonwa tried to balance the daily pain of her MCL injury with not pushing herself so far that she’d regress. She was prepared, though, having dealt with a similar challenge years earlier when, as a senior at Notre Dame, the 6' 3" forward suffered a torn ACL in the school’s Elite Eight win over Baylor.

This summer she worked with the Lynx’ medical staff and with experts at the nearby Mayo Clinic to improve her range of motion. She relearned how to walk and jog, all while providing regular detailed progress reports to the Canadian national team, which anxiously hoped one of its key players would be available—and she was.

“[Minnesota sees] you as so much more than just a Lynx player,” she says. “They understand there’s more that goes into who you are and what you do. And being a Canadian basketball player, playing for the national team is ingrained in who I am.”

Over the last decade-plus, the 28-year-old forward has emerged as a staple of her native country’s program. At 16, she became the youngest player selected to the Canadian senior national team. By 19, she made her Olympic debut in London, later also appearing in the 2016 Rio Games.

While Canada bowed out of this summer’s Games with a disappointing 1–2 pool play record, Achonwa still relished belting out her country’s national anthem and taking part in yet another Olympics.

“It took a lot,” she says. “So I soaked up every moment I had.”

Notes from around the WNBA:

As Achonwa has developed into a leader and contributing role player on the Lynx, it’s hard to discuss the franchise’s success this year without mentioning its star center: Sylvia Fowles.

Fowles, 35, is in the midst of one of her best seasons and has emerged as a front-runner for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. She’s averaging 16.6 points and 10 rebounds per game, while recording 2.6 steals per contest and shooting 62.5% from the field. On Tuesday night against the Storm, she put up a historic performance, finishing her team’s 76–70 win with 29 points, 20 rebounds, four steals, three blocks and no turnovers.

It marked the first game of at least 20 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in WNBA history.

In talking with Fowles earlier this season, she told me that she entered this year looking to rebound from an injury-riddled 2020 season, which saw her miss 15 of Minnesota’s 22 regular-season games.

How Sylvia Fowles Has Remained the Lynx' Stabilizing Force

“That was the first time an injury actually broke me down mentally,” she said in mid-June. “That was hard, not to be out there playing, not to be going through the struggles with your team. But it also taught me that they learned to play without me, which was great to see.”

She added she was just trying to have a “fit in where I get in” type of mindset. But it’s hard to see her merely fitting in with the way she has been playing of late.

“Thank goodness for Syl Fowles,” Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said Tuesday night.

Minnesota started the season 0–4, but since May 30, it has won 15 games, the most in the league over that span.

The Lynx closed the first half of the season winning seven consecutive games. And despite two losses to the Sun since play resumed in mid-August, they recently rebounded with convincing wins over the Sky and Storm. Stocked with a deep roster, Reeve’s team is quickly closing on the franchise’s 11th straight playoff berth.

The WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder remains a big reason why.

Tuesday night marked one of the most loaded nights on the WNBA schedule. Aside from the Lynx-Storm battle, the Sun defeated the Aces, the Sky topped the Dream and the Mystics knocked off the Sparks. The latter contest marked the second game this season for Mystics center Elena Delle Donne.

Delle Donne is still working her way back from two back surgeries, but in her two appearances this season, it hasn’t taken long for her impact to be felt. Against Seattle on Sunday, she scored 16 points in just 22 minutes. On Tuesday night, with Tina Charles out with a hip injury, Delle Donne scored 18 points in 18 minutes, producing from all three levels of the court.

“Knock on wood, if we get that Elena for enough games, that’s going to be a huge factor for us,” coach Mike Thibault told reporters Tuesday.

Delle Donne admitted to feeling “tons of nerves” Sunday ahead of her debut, adding that her return to play was a “whirlwind.” While she felt butterflies, the two-time league MVP provides not only another on-court weapon for the Mystics but also serves as a calming force.

“She really slows down the game and allows us to play with composure,” Erica McCall said this week.

While MVP candidate Charles missed Tuesday’s victory with a left gluteal strain, the eight-time All-Star is not expected to be out for long. Instead, with both Charles and Delle Donne in the lineup, Washington immediately looks to be one of the biggest threats in the league, fully capable of knocking off any expected favorites.

Nneka Ogwumike is now five games into her return, after a two-month absence from WNBA play. While she didn’t play her best in Tuesday’s loss to the Mystics—finishing with just six points and six rebounds in 26 minutes—she has been key in the Sparks’ rise up the league standings since play resumed two weeks ago.

Tuesday’s defeat marked the first time Ogwumike had failed to score in double digits since she returned from her left knee injury, and also the first time L.A. had lost in five games this August. Still, Nneka’s return and the even more recent return of her sister Chiney have paid immediate dividends, with the Sparks currently sitting at No. 3 in defensive rating (allowing just 92.8 points per 100 possessions and being more than six points better defensively per 100 possessions) since play resumed. Offensively, Los Angeles still has to figure out how to be more efficient and productive, but it’s hard not to see a correlation with Nneka’s return and the team’s four recent wins, all by five points or fewer. After an injury-riddled first half of the season, the Sparks find themselves squarely in the playoff picture, and are set to battle the Liberty, Wings and Mystics for the final two spots in the bracket.

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