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Nneka Ogwumike Is Sparking a Conversation About Mental Health

The WNBA player opens up about how discussing feelings and putting yourself first is acceptable.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike has a relationship with mental health that will sound familiar to so many in this country. Born in Texas to Nigerian immigrants, it wasn’t until her 20s that she began to understand anything about self-care. “In the Black community, that’s been such a faux pas for so long to speak about,” the 31-year-old president of the league’s players association says. “I always try to alleviate any type of guilt that people feel for not considering it seriously by referencing the fact that for previous generations, my parents’ generation, mental health was not a priority. Survival was a priority, creating a life for yourself was a priority.”

In the Ogwumike household, her parents made sure that their daughters – Nneka, fellow Sparks player Chiney and younger sisters Erica and Olivia – focused on education. “That was a non-negotiable,” says Nneka, who is featured in the 2022 SI Swimsuit Issue. It was then on to extracurriculars like student council or playing instruments. “All of these things to keep me and my sisters busy, but it was definitely the structure that I needed and that discipline ended up showing itself a lot through sport.”

That dedication paid off. After four years at Stanford where she is the school’s second all-time leading scorer, Ogwumike was selected as the first overall pick in the 2012 WNBA draft. As she got her footing as a player on a much larger stage, she was learning so much more about herself and the woman she wanted to be on and off the court. “I just started really considering how I wanted to create a legacy for myself,” she says. “I think it’s very difficult for women because we’ve been [raised] for so long to be grateful for what we have. We’re never taught to be the main character of our own story.”

Exuding strength and sincerity, she was elected WNBPA president in 2016. “A well-balanced woman is a very powerful woman, but knowing when it’s your time to shine and knowing when to share your light is very important,” she says. “You have to listen to people’s experience and especially empower those who have not historically had the space to share their story.”

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In this leadership role, she has been integral in getting pay raises for players, fully paid maternity leaves, better travel arrangements and a potential 50-50 split of revenue between the league and the players. Currently, she is shining a spotlight on mental health wellness. “When the pandemic hit, I realized that mental health care was a part of the muscles I needed to train,” Ogwumike admits. “I realized that very quickly in 2020, when we had to sit still at home and consider the health of others, and also sit at home watching the discrimination of Black people in this country. There was a lot of reflection going on that I think really put mental health center stage.”

At the same time, she knew she had to take her own wellness into account so she could be there for others. “What I realized was that feeling as though you’re carrying a lot is very normal,” says Ogwumike, who also helped push forward the dedication of the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re all human. Fighting that feeling with ‘You’re weak; suck it up,’ is not it. That’s the kind of example where you need to figure out what works for you to bring yourself balance.”

For Ogwumike, that meant having structure in her days stuck in the house and finding the middle ground. “You have to learn how to set boundaries on what comes at you from the outside, but also you have to set boundaries on yourself,” she says. “We have vices that will keep us up at night, and you have to know when to stop yourself because if you over-consume, you won’t be able to move. That’s the best way that I could describe how I really tackle my mental health is ensuring that. If we’re speaking literally, no one messes with my morning routine or evening routine!” 

View Ogwumike's full 2022 gallery here.