Achonwa Remains Single-Minded as Her Comeback Continues

By Tom Rietmann | May 4, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS – The recent date of April 18 held significant meaning for Natalie Achonwa. It was the one-year anniversary of surgery on her left knee. The Indiana Fever's first-year center marked the occasion by purchasing a new car, a 2015 Kia Optima.

“Celebrating the little wins” is what Achonwa calls it as her rehabilitation continues. With the Fever only a few weeks away from starting training camp on May 17, Achonwa wants those little wins to keep coming. And she is aiming for a major victory in June when her first WNBA season begins.

She hopes to be a consistent contributor for an Indiana team that will be seeking its 11th consecutive playoff appearance.

“Physically, I might not be ready to produce the way I had in the past,” the 6-foot-4 Achonwa said. “I'll just try to keep that mental part of the game there and try to outsmart opponents rather than out-bang them … Just try to bring that basketball IQ to the team.”

The story of Achonwa's injury, how she arrived as a member of the Fever and her comeback is both compelling and inspiring. The comeback chapter, the part where her determination and relentlessness take over, is ongoing.

During the 2013-14 basketball season, the Notre Dame star ranked as one of the finest collegiate players in the land. But then she suffered a knee injury during the NCAA tournament, requiring surgery that involved a microfracture procedure. For two months, she wasn't even allowed to walk.

Still, in the 2014 WNBA Draft, Indiana owned a pair of first-round picks and didn't hesitate to select the talented Achonwa. Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's president and general manager, was beginning a roster facelift with plans of making the team a bit younger. The Fever chose forward Natasha Howard with the sixth overall pick and took Achonwa at No. 9.

Achonwa went to work. With help from her Notre Dame coaches and friends, she got past the difficult first two months after surgery. She moved into extensive rehab, which became excruciating at times, but she soldiered through because her goal – the WNBA – remained in clear view.

“The first day that I got to put 30 percent (weight) on it, it was like my birthday,” she said about her injured knee. “Every little thing, I just had to keep thinking, 'It gets better, it gets better.' ”

Achonwa kept working out but also took on duties as an operations assistant to the Notre Dame coaching staff. She helped the team arrange its hotels and travel for road games. She managed other details that lightened the load for the Fighting Irish coaching staff.

“I had those relationships with the staff and coaches where they trusted me to fill a role that big,” Achonwa said. “It kept my mind from wandering, from getting down. I had to take care of 13 other girls. I had to make sure the coaches knew their schedules. So I didn't really have time to feel sorry for myself.”

In February, Achonwa moved into an apartment in Indianapolis as her rehab continued. But she commuted once a week to South Bend for her work with the Irish team. She usually packed a lunch for the trip but also grew familiar with some key restaurant stops along the way on U.S. Route 31.

“I'd try not to stop, but McDonald's sweet tea gets me every time,” she said.

Now, Achonwa's in-the-gym work is shifting into a higher gear. By the start of training camp, she hopes to be taking part in five-on-five contact drills. She refuses to yield to what she says can sometimes become a physical “roller-coaster.”

“You have your good days, you have your bad days,” she said. “I call them good-knee days and bad-knee days. You don't know when you wake up what it's going to feel like. You just have to push through.”

For the upcoming season, Indiana returns last year's starting front line of Tamika Catchings and Erlana Larkins. They will be joined in the post competition at camp by Achonwa, Howard, Lynetta Kizer, Alicia DeVaughn and 2015 second-round draftee Chelsea Gardner. Those inside players, combined with a veteran group on the perimeter, give the Fever what Krauskopf views as the franchise's deepest camp roster – one with “no weak link.”

Stephanie White, the Fever's first-year head coach, anticipates Achonwa fitting into the post-player rotation but won't rush her.

“It's definitely a transition,” White said. “We want to be patient with her process. We want to make sure she is fully healthy before we put her on the floor and give her quality minutes and gain her experience. I think we are cautiously optimistic (about) where she is and where she will be by, hopefully, midseason.”

Achonwa, a native of Canada, expects to leave the Fever for two short periods this season while she plays for her country's national team. As a 19-year-old in 2012, she played for Canada in the London Olympics and was one of the youngest members of a squad that went 2-3 in pool play. One of Canada's victories came against a Brazil team led by Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza.

Achonwa, following a recent photo shoot for the Fever and conversations with a couple of reporters, headed to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court to begin her workout for the day. As the countdown to camp continues, so does her resolve to be ready.

To say Achonwa is eager to get started would be a monumental understatement.

“Excited, definitely excited,” she said. “It's nice to be at a point where you almost don't know what to expect. So you can't over-think it. I have no idea how my body's going to react. I have no idea how I'm going to fit and play into this team and what my role is going to be.”

Achonwa paused.

“Free and excited,” she said, repeating how she feels heading into camp. And ready to enjoy the process.

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