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WNBA Star Nneka Ogwumike Talks About “Being More Than Just an Athlete”

The WNBA star and WNBPA president opens up in an exclusive interview with SI Swimsuit.
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Nneka Ogwumike, the 2012 No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick and current Los Angeles Sparks star and WNBPA president, recently spoke with SI Swim during her photo shoot in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The 2022 Swimsuit Issue will be available at newsstands starting May 19. You can reserve your copy now.

[Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

SI Swim: How did it feel to be on the shoot with some of your fellow WNBA peers? It seemed like you were having fun experiencing all of it together.

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Ogwumike: I really did love it. It definitely added to the element of our time here. We had our own kind of individual moment to just be by ourselves. There are the such powerful shots with women of this league—we have young players, a legend like Sue [Bird]. For us to all be in the shot created a bond I may not have otherwise developed, especially with players I wasn't super-familiar with. [As president of the WNBPA], I know players, but I don't get to have one-on-ones with every single player.

SI Swim: What were you like as a child?

Ogwumike: Growing up, I was very blessed. We had a pretty privileged life thanks to the sacrifices of my parents. My sisters [Chiney, also in the WNBA, Olivia and Erica] were really my friends, but in a lot of ways, I was also like a third parent and they still see me that way a lot of times, but it's fun to be friends with your siblings. Little Nneka was hyperactive. I could not sit down. I got in trouble for it a lot. So my parents took it upon themselves in the way raised us [to say] education was key. That was a non-negotiable—you had to get good marks in school.

Then, being involved in school programs, which ended up being kind of more of like a student council thing for me—all of these things to keep me and my sisters busy. It was definitely structured and that discipline ended up showing itself a lot through sports. I started going to gymnastics … but when I was old enough for it to be competitive, my coach told me I was a hazard to myself [because I] was too tall. [Someone suggested putting me] in club basketball. We haven't looked back ever since. I was the guinea pig. Initially, it was my whole family watching me do it and then my sisters all kind of found their own paths. But this all started because I could not sit still.

SI Swim: There are so many things that you have done in your career. Has all of this sunk in, and is there anything you're most proud of?

Ogwumike: When I say that I've been in the league for 11 years, I'm just like, “Whoa, where has the time gone? Um, how old am I?” But I'm also really grateful to have so much of that experience in my memory bank and for it to guide me through what I do every day. Even going back to [playing at] Stanford, I started off as this freshman, trying to figure out how not to mess up. [Stanford coach] Tara [VanDerveer] helped me understand that I could be a leader in my own way. So, being able to be a leader and communicate, I'm more of a lead-by-example type of captain or leader [and] learning how to develop interpersonal relationships through the process. I'm very proud of my time at Stanford. I learned so much about myself. I learned how not to box myself in and that really prepared me for the league.

SI Swim: How do you empower yourself? How do you empower your experience and others?

Ogwumike: [There was a point when] I started realizing, “Hey, I’m Nneka, I am more than just an athlete.” There's so much about me that makes me, me, and I don't want to be pigeonholed into being one person. And so with that, I made executive decisions on my own professional life … and started really considering how I wanted to create a legacy for myself. And it kind of happened all at once. I changed my representation and also ended up kind of falling into this presidential job. It's a job that hasn't been very glamorous and I'm hoping I've changed a lot through my work with the executive committee and the WPA, and the WNBA. … Being president at a time where these women [in the WNBA] have changed the game for sports and are using their platforms and signing our most recent collective-bargaining agreement—that is at the top of what I am feel most proud of.

SI Swim: [The conversation turns to comparisons between men and women in the workplace, and how female athletes in all sports continue to push for equity and continued empowerment.]

Ogwumike: [As women], we're never taught to be the main character of our own story. We're always having to be the supporting cast. We have to realize it's OK to think about all those things. It's OK to think about only yourself certain instances, with the awareness of what that means—it's not just me, me, me, me, me all the time. Because a well-balanced woman is a very powerful woman. And so, knowing when it's your time to shine and knowing when to share your light is very, very important. For women in any type of profession, it's difficult to understand when to pull up your seat to the table and when to invite someone there.

Having a space to feel comfortable [when it’s all] not quite figured out is really important because we always feel like we have to come with our s--- together, you know? There's no weakness in letting people know, “I don't know what I'm doing, I need to figure out how I can balance all of this.” I love that. That is what people are understanding now, because that's really where the work is done and how you can move forward.

[Fighting for maternity leave and pay raises] is huge—it's taking care of you and generations to come. When we signed the collective-bargaining agreement, it felt to us that it was everywhere, everyone was talking about it because [it was the] progressive nature of the agreement. What I thought was so crazy was that, for so long, everyone was talking about, “Oh, when are you guys going to get paid more?” There has always been this undertone of “You're not getting enough. You guys don't make money, there's no revenue.” That influenced my belief that we were so far behind other professions and organizations. When … you're thinking about women who know work nine to five, in an office, they were congratulating us on things that they had been fighting for.

SI Swim: Outside of basketball, you are involved in a lot of causes. You started working with [Black Lives Matter] more closely during and after the pandemic [among other causes that are important to you]?

Ogwumike: I would actually start with the Bring Back Our Girls. I was such a young player and we were seeing [Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram] kidnapping girls and us not knowing where they were. That was my first experience with understanding how to use my platform and all it takes is compassion and connectivity. And we are Nigerian Americans. We were raised in a household with so much Nigerian influence and culture. For us to be able to use our platforms to hopefully make some type of change was really where that was.

With BLM, it was my first year as PA president, and we got push back from the league for wanting to do media blackouts, to wear shirts, after the killing of Philando Castile [in 2016]. It was a lot because one, my allegiance is always going to be to the players. But then, I am the messenger, I am the executer when it comes to communicating to the league, “Hey, this is what the players want. How are we gonna make this work?” [The following year] we didn't come out for the national anthem before Game 1 of the WNBA finals. It was such a raw moment because, we're in the locker room literally seconds before we have to run out, trying to figure out, “What does this mean to us? What side of history are we going to say that we were on?

So, that initiated my perspective and understanding of, not just working with organizations like Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, but also how being a part of a player organization that has so much influence and integrity in the women that are a part of the league and also understanding—in these times, everyone is not going to have the same opinion.

[While playing in the “wobble” during the COVID-19 pandemic] we saw the most interaction when it came to not just how the world was being affected by what was happening, but also how we respond. But also having these hard conversations with ourselves about what can we do about this. We had to figure out how we could support our sisters in that. We had to figure out what we could do to mobilize. People that were all sitting at home, watching our games— what could use our platform for in an election year, a year in which the pandemic is severely indiscriminately affecting different people.

It's all about listening. You have to listen to people's experience and especially empower those who have not historically had the space to share their story and their experience. That’s what I [did] to be as helpful as I could and as progressive as I could as the PA president the players look up to—to hopefully get their message across. … [Working with] many prominent leaders and being in the same room with [BLM and other groups] who have been doing the work since before we were born, it's such a learning experience. It just teaches you more about how you can use your platform, and especially collectively—because that's what really sets the WNBA apart.