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Nneka Ogwumike sets sights on Nigerian Olympic dream, reflects on cultural roots

Nneka Ogwumike sets sights on Nigerian Olympic dream, reflects on cultural roots

WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike is eyeing a new challenge: representing Nigeria at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

In a recent interview with NBC Sports, the 33-year-old forward opened up about her Nigerian heritage, past Olympic disappointments, and her aspirations to don the green and white of Nigeria on the global stage.

Ogwumike, who has previously been part of the USA Basketball program, made it clear that her future Olympic aspirations lie with Nigeria.

“I’m never going to play for Team USA again. I’ve already made peace with that,” she stated firmly. “But if I’m able to play for Team Nigeria that would be amazing.”

The journey to potentially represent Nigeria has not been without obstacles. In 2021, FIBA denied Ogwumike’s petition to play for Nigeria at the Tokyo Games due to her “substantial involvement” with USA Basketball. However, she remains hopeful about the possibility of representing her ancestral homeland.

L:R: The Ogwumike sisters (Erica, Chinenye and Nneka) in Nigeria’s pre-Olympics friendly game against the United States in 2021. Photo: AP

“I don’t see why FIBA wouldn’t want to talk about and encourage people to expand and grow the game of basketball on the continent of Africa, especially where you see so many Africans excelling elsewhere,” Ogwumike argued, highlighting the potential positive impact of allowing players with African heritage to represent African nations.

Reflecting on her past Olympic disappointments, including being left off the U.S. team for both the Rio and Tokyo Games, Ogwumike said, “I think that those experiences definitely made me feel powerless but really I was feeling a lot of heartbreak.” However, she’s used these setbacks as motivation and a chance for self-reflection.

Ogwumike’s pursuit of an Olympic dream is deeply rooted in her Nigerian heritage. Born Nnemkadi Chinwe Ogwumike, she explained the meaning behind her name: “My first name basically means ‘My mother is here, my mother remains’. My middle name means ‘God gives’. My last name Ogwumike, doesn’t directly translate but loosely it means ‘warrior’.”

The WNBA star credits her Nigerian upbringing for instilling core values that have shaped her character and career.

“Discipline, respect, and the importance of family are some of the major pillars,” she said.

“We grew up in a household where doing your best was the standard and a lot of times that translated to getting good marks in school and being able to excel in anything that we’re doing, and that ended up being sport.”

As a firstborn daughter in a Nigerian family, Ogwumike acknowledges the weight of cultural expectations. “Not only that but being a firstborn daughter is quite heavy. I think it shapes the identity of Nigerian kids,” she reflected.

“Your mistakes are a reflection of the future of your siblings and just making sure that you can serve as a great example for them.”

Nneka Ogwumike (right) with sister Chinenye. Photo: nnekaogwumike (Instagram)

Throughout her career, Ogwumike has had to navigate the complexities of her dual cultural identity. “Even on broadcast, it’s taken several years for people to actually pronounce my name,” she noted, touching on broader issues of representation and recognition for athletes with African names.

Despite these challenges, Ogwumike has embraced her heritage fully. “I think I was definitely watering myself down early on but now I will step into a space and be authentically myself,” she declared, emphasizing the importance of cultural authenticity in her professional life.

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