by Vanessa Santilli
The Catholic Register
Natalie Achonwa graduated from a Hamilton, Ont., high school to the University of Notre Dame and went right into the record book.
The budding basketball star is the first international player to suit up for Notre Dame’s varsity basketball team in the 34-year history of the women’s program. And, although she just turned 18 last week, she is already a two-year veteran of the Canadian women’s senior national team.
Achonwa is a graduate of St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Hamilton. A native of Toronto who moved to Guelph, Ont., in Grade 5, she relocated to Hamilton in Grade 10 (moving in with a host family) to pursue her basketball passion through the National Elite Development Academy (NEDA).
The NEDA program, run by Canada Basketball before it became a victim of budget cuts, allowed top athletes to spend half a day in classes at St. Mary’s and the other half training at McMaster University.
But relocating to South Bend, Indiana, and the campus of America’s most prestigious Catholic university, has been her biggest move of all. And she was not without options.
Some of the schools Achonwa turned down include Ohio State University, Michigan State University, Kentucky State University, the University of Louisville, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Maryland.
Surprisingly, Achonwa said she wasn’t very good the first time she played basketball in Grade 6.
“I was terrible,” she said. “My dad always tells the story that the first time I shot the ball, it went right over the backboard. And then I ran back and he says I had no shame. He said that’s how he knew I was going to be good,” she said with a laugh.
Achonwa plans to enter the school of business next year and is taking courses to fulfill the necessary requirements. She’s still deciding on what her major will be.
Her desire to attend an American university stemmed from advice her dad gave her once she started getting serious about basketball: Use basketball as a tool, don’t let basketball use you, he told her.
“It was a great opportunity to use basketball to get a great education,” she said.
Along with her talent on the court, she was also strong academically in high school, said Emidio Piccioni, principal at St. Mary’s.
While the community at St. Mary’s is extremely proud that Achonwa is playing for Notre Dame, Piccioni said it’s not surprising.
“She showed tremendous promise right from the beginning,” he said. “And we are quite happy and proud that one of our own could represent our school as well as our Catholic Hamilton board at Notre Dame.”
Achonwa said that lately a lot of people have been asking her what she wants to be when she grows up.
“My answer is successful,” she said.
“I’m really grateful for where I’ve been but also excited for the path that God has planned for me,” she said. “I feel that if you have the willingness to persevere and you have the people to support you, you can do anything.”
Ideally, Achonwa would like to continue playing basketball post-university.
“I would like to play basketball as long as God has planned for me and as long as my body holds up,” she said. “Basketball has opened up so many doors for me in the past and I believe it will continue to do so in the future.”