Arike Ogunbowale is the perfect example of what happens when you want to be the best at something, and commit to doing the work to make that happen.
After being recruited to play basketball at Notre Dame in 2015, the Milwaukee native found herself coming off of the bench as a reserve, not being able to fully show everyone what she was capable of. When her first season came to an end, she dedicated herself to a much healthier diet, and a much more intense training regimen. The results? Not only did she become a starter, but she led the women’s team to an NCAA National Championship title in 2018, making game-winning shots in the semi-final and final that went viral. She was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, won an ESPY award, led the team back to the finals this year, and in perfect culmination of all her hard work, was most recently drafted by the WNBA‘s Dallas Wings. It’s been quite the successful journey for the 22-year-old, one that wouldn’t have been so fruitful without discipline, confidence, and a lot of support.
With her first WNBA season beginning this month (May 24), we talked to Ogunbowale ahead of the preseason about how she went from soccer lover to basketball star, what it’s taken for her to have the peak level of confidence she has to be a game-winning shooter, and what she had to change in terms of her diet and exercise in order to be the unstoppable player she is now.
MadameNoire: Can you go back and speak on what it took for you to get to this point? And by that I mean, excelling in basketball, getting drafted by the Dallas Wings, and having all the success you had at Notre Dame considering you were this close to playing soccer and getting recruited for that actually. How did you end up choosing basketball and taking this path?
Arike Ogunbowale: I think as I got older I started to like [basketball] a bit more. When I was younger I definitely loved soccer. My dad loved soccer so that’s where that came from. But I think as I got older, I was getting better at basketball, too. I was like, “I think I want to play basketball.” I think I was having more fun with it. After that, it was just all basketball, working out, tournaments, training, all that type of stuff, especially to get the this point now.
You’ve had success not only in the sport, but in the opportunities you’ve been able to obtain because of it. I know you’ve been on Ellen, you met Kobe Bryant, you’ve been on Dancing With the Stars, won an ESPY Award. Out of all of your major moments, is there a specific highlight that stands out for you?
Definitely winning the National Championship. I mean, that’s what all collegiate-level players go to college to try to achieve. To finally actually reach that goal, something you’ve been dreaming about, and after not being able to do it for two years, that’s definitely the highlight of all of the things that have happened.
Nice! And what’s the key to the confidence you have to be the clutch player that you are? They want the ball in your hands for that last-second shot. Obviously that confidence also pours into your real life. So what is the key to not feeling the pressure or the heat?
I think I just love moments like that. That’s how I’ve been all my life. Like you said, I have a lot of confidence in myself. Make the shot or miss the shot, I’m going to shoot the shot regardless. I believe in myself and have a lot of confidence in myself, and that’s a credit to my team and coaches as well. They always put me in a position to have the ball in the end. They trust in me, and their trust in me boosts my confidence.
What role did your parents and family play in boosting your confidence?
I have two older brothers, and living with them, they treated me like one of them. They didn’t take it easy on me just because I was a girl. I would always play all the different sports they would play: soccer, football, basketball. It was definitely tough when I was little, but as I got older, I got better at it, especially by playing with boys. I played in a boys league when I was younger, up to about fourth or fifth grade. So when I finally started playing with girls, I was stronger, I was better.
So your inaugural WNBA season starts this month. What is your diet and workout regimen like? You said in a previous interview that you started eating better and training differently after your freshman year of college because you wanted to go from off the bench to starting. So how has your regimen changed and the effort you put in? I’ve seen those abs, and they’re insane!
[Laughs]. Definitely just being more conscious, especially coming into college. In high school, you just don’t care. You eat whatever, you play however many games. Once you get to college though, it’s a lot tougher. The players are bigger, stronger, faster. The game just speeds up, and you can’t keep the same habits as you had in high school, so I definitely tried to change that. Less candy and fast food. I wouldn’t say I dieted, but I just tried to eat better, eat at certain times, and make more healthy choices.
That’s a big deal because for a lot of people, college is when you completely fall off the wagon. You don’t have your parents monitoring what you eat so you consume burgers and fries every night [laughs]. You end up gaining weight.
That’s how I was freshman year.
Girl, who wasn’t?
So how did you push yourself to cultivate that discipline as a young person? That’s really tough.
After my Freshman season I was just like, I want to change something. My parents actually helped, because when I go home, my mom will cook all healthy foods. That was actually the biggest step because she had to buy all these healthy groceries, and of course, she did it because she wanted me eating healthier.
Speaking of your mom, I know she used to play softball in college. Coming from a family of athletes, how do they go about supporting you in a way that may be different from what other people expect and receive from parents who didn’t play competitively?
Yeah, they really get on me. Even if we won a game and I’ve had 20 points, they’re still not satisfied. They’re competitive themselves, especially my mom. With everything, she gets mad if I lose, she’s sometimes more mad than me. She’s on me about good games, bad games, they could be little things, but it definitely helps me.
Speaking of parents, I also know your dad is Nigerian, making you a Nigerian-American player. Obviously, you have a lot of fans already, but there’s a special set of fans, Nigerian people, who are rooting for you. So how does it feel to represent as a Nigerian-American woman on this stage? There are actually quite a few in the WNBA, but what’s it like for you to have that connection with fans outside of the States, too?
It’s an honor and of course there are fans, American fans, but it’s like having another set of fans that support you and treat you like family. That community is really big. I get messages a lot from people in Nigeria who watch me. When I got drafted, people from my dad’s family that live in Nigeria, they sent him screenshots of the news over there because they put it on the news that I got drafted to Dallas. They really support me out here and it’s just great to have that extra community.
When you’re not eating as healthy as you should [laughs], what’s your favorite Nigerian dish to eat?
Going into the WNBA, there are so many elite players. Is there anyone in particular you’re excited to go up against?
I would say Maya [Moore], but she’s not playing this year. Diana Taurasi, she’s a great player and I’ve watched a lot of her games. She’s just a killer. It will be tough playing against her but I’m going to be in awe a little bit, too.