Within a few minutes of chatting with 2010 Gatorade Girls High School Athlete of the Year Chiney Ogwumike after the Gatorade Athlete of the Year Luncheon in Los Angeles on the afternoon before the ESPY awards, the differences between her and her sister Nneka -- whom she will join this fall at Stanford University -- became a bit more concrete.
As many women's basketball fans may already may be aware, Nneka was described in a New York Times article earlier this year as a player still critiqued for passivity, whereas Chiney is considered a more aggressive player. Having spoken with Nneka in a phone interview prior to Chiney winning the 2009-10 Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year, that difference in basketball styles is also evident in their career paths: as Nneka told the Times earlier this year she loves to talk and wants to be a lawyer. Yet she not only loves to talk, but does so with an affable intensity and vibrant sincerity that is almost disarming, but supported by a steady focus on the matter at hand, even as she discussed the rather ordinary task of choosing her major after being nationally honored as an extraordinary student-athlete.
"I'm interested in Law and Business, but I'm also interested in Communications," said Ogwumike, in an almost rehearsed tone, indicative of how well-thought out her plans are relative to her peers. "So I hope to get something called a JD/MBA after graduating school where you get a law and business degree in three years. So that's the plan right now, but I hear that changes when to college."
However, it was not only the vibe she seemed to exude as she rotated around to talk to various media members after the luncheon, but more specifically a level of charisma well beyond that of her exceptionally talented peers, including 2010 Gatorade Boys High School Athlete of the Year, Brandon Knight, who is headed to Kentucky to fill John Wall's spot.
"He's a quiet kid," said Ogwumike, while leaning in closer and whispering about Knight -- a friend who she met at the 2010 McDonald's All-American game -- who was standing a few feet behind her during our interview. "And I'm not the quiet kid so we just hit it off and it was a really great experience to see him win and know him previously and see his family. It's just a great day."
Yet despite the differences in personality, the thing that both 2010 Gatorade Athletes of the Year have in common -- and likewise, Chiney and her sister Nneka -- what they both demonstrate is Gatorade's emphasis on honoring student-athletes who manage to do more than excel on the field.
Ogwumike holds her trophy during a media session interview. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
As an educator who is often troubled by the way high school athletics can so often be an end goal for youth instead of one part of the process of youth development, what made this particular event special and an honor to be invited to was that the nominees absolutely exemplify all of the benefits one might ascribe to playing youth sports -- building character in the form assertiveness, confidence, and a willingness to lead.
"Just even hearing them speak, you can already tell they're good kids and they want to do well for themselves and very excited about winning an award and probably one of many that they'll get," said 1999-2000 Gatorade Oklahoma Football Player of the Year award winner and Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker about Knight and Ogwumike in an interview after the luncheon.
Perusing the accomplishments in the "exemplary character" category of the various student-athletes, it's clear that although they all demonstrate exemplary character in different ways, they certainly all have a common interest in life beyond the sport they excel in.
"When you're an athlete you dedicate so much time to that, you have to remember that there's things besides your sport," said Megan Goethals, 2009-2010 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, who will also be venturing westward to the University of Washington this fall. "So just doing something that will help someone else or show someone else how to better themselves, that's rewarding."
For Ogwumike, the maturity she demonstrates in her interpersonal interactions translates into her efforts to work to contribute positively to the world around her. In addition to being a member of the National Honor Society and Spanish National Honor Society, the 6'3" forward was also Cy-Fair High School (Cypress, TX) student body president as well as Vice President of the civil rights club. Those leadership roles that she took on among her peers were as important as the leadership role she assumed on the court.
"Just being a good civil kid around school," said 2007 Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love when asked about what the exemplary character criteria means to him. "Making sure you're picking your teammates up but also picking your classmates up as well, no matter what they're going through."
Obviously, "exemplary character" is a somewhat nebulous concept that could mean an infinite number of things on and off the field depending on one's perspective. However in asking around, the most common source of character mentioned among the current high school honorees and the pro athletes present was by far family.
"Their families have to be a big part of helping them through that and being supportive and not pulling them away from what they need to accomplish what they need to accomplish and being a good supporting role," said Welker when asked about Knight and Ogwumike. "I think family plays a big part in that."
As publicized previously in the New York Times article, Chiney had plenty of family role models growing up. Her father owns an information technology business and her mother is a middle school teacher. However, when asked about the most significant influence in her life, Ogwumike cited her older sister Nneka, who was 2010 Pac-10 Player of the Year and a 2008 Gatorade award winner. Even if it was somewhat predictable, her admiration for her sister came through in both her words and body language.
"She was nominated and she didn't win it but the support she gave me to put me in a position to succeed is just honestly one of the best things I could have from someone in my family," said Ogwumike in describing the significance of her sister to her life. "She's been a wonderful role model for me and I just try to emulate what she does and through that I've only been receiving success through that so I'm very thankful for having a sister like that."
When asked for her personal definition of "exemplary character", Ogwumike articulated something approximating integrity - both focusing on how she treats others while remaining true to herself and her values. Given her upbringing, it should come as no surprise that being a good role model for others with a strong sense of self is part of her definition of character.
"Character is one of the things I pride myself on," said Ogwumike. "Being a good person is how you basically set the tone for success athletically and academically. So having support from my family, friends, and community and letting me be who I want to be and then also being a good role model for others."
What's so remarkable about Ogwumike even relative to this field of student-athletes is that her words not only come out in her actions, but also in her demeanor. So it wasn't even necessarily anything that Ogwumike said during our brief chat in the middle of that whirlwind day that included attending the ESPY awards across the plaza at LA Live. What might have been more striking was a second hand account of Ogwumike from a media member sitting next to me at the awards luncheon earlier in the day.
Knight and Ogwumike show their trophies after receiving the 2010 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year honors, Wednesday, July 14, 2010 in Los Angeles. Photo/Gatorade, Susan Goldman, handout.
He was coincidentally in town for a family vacation and brought his wife and 8-year-old daughter along with him. We began talking about how great it was that Gatorade was celebrating more about these youth than their ability to excel athletically and taking a more holistic approach to honoring student athletes. He mentioned that he was excited to bring his daughter along because he liked the example these athletes set for her.
"So it must be great for her to see someone like Lisa Leslie," I suggested.
"Well, that's true," he said. "But I was actually looking forward to her meeting Chiney Ogwumike."
We can assume he wasn't implying that Ogwumike is already the better basketball player -- that would be premature to say the very least. As it turns out, he had spoken with Ogwumike previously for a story and was so impressed by her that he was eager for his daughter to meet her because she was the type of young woman that he wants his daughter to become. Sure enough, after the ceremony, he brought his daughter into the media area and had her meet Ogwumike and get an autograph.
Of course, this is a sample size of one writer who decided that Ogwumike was the right type of role model for his daughter after talking to her. So it's not to imply that Ogwumike is objectively a better role model than Leslie. However, symbolically it should mean quite a bit - Leslie is easily among the world's top five most recognizable female athletes and one that has inspired girls beyond the sport of basketball. For someone to consider Ogwumike in the category of people worthy of being the standard by which their daughter should live by is quite remarkable and a testament to her own family who has helped her become the person she is today.
At the end of the ceremony, Ogwumike's "2010 Gatorade Girls Athlete of the Year" banner was unfurled next to an impressive group of girls basketball players that have won the award in five of the last seven years: Candace Parker (2004), Tina Charles (2006), Maya Moore (2007), and Skylar Diggins (2009). To put Ogwumike's place in that group in perspective - either as a high school player or her potential to be considered among the best women's basketball players in the world - we could go through and try to match performances on the court or even enumerate accolades and statistical accomplishments, of which there are many for all of the above. However, that would miss the point entirely.
As someone who has worked with hundreds of high schoolers and undergraduate students over the years, I also found Ogwumike's confidence, focus, and sincerity quite striking. This is certainly not to say there aren't millions of other similarly impressive youth in the world who with the right emotional, intellectual, and social support can develop into people just as successful as Ogwumike might one day become. The difference is that Ogwumike is all that many of our best and brightest have to offer in addition to being arguably the best girls basketball player in the nation. Whatever maturity we might identify in her basketball game might in fact be exceeded by her maturity as a person.
As we all stood and applauded the student-athletes to close the ceremony, another media member sitting next to me leaned over near the end of the luncheon and said with a chuckle, "She's going to be President one day." Of course, athletes are human and should certainly not be placed on pedestals. Nevertheless, although I saw no tears at the end of the Gatorade luncheon, the ceremony produced a collective energy in the room with almost everyone acknowledging the honor of being able to share this moment with student-athletes that seem to have unlimited potential to offer the world. Whether it be the exuberance of the day or the experience of watching her older sister in the spotlight previously, Ogwumike just seemed to have an additional charismatic presence that shined a little bit brighter than the others. Only when considering how amazing it is that Ogwumike stands out as the best among a very accomplished group of student-athletes can one appreciate just how special Gatorade's event was.
"It's been special," said Ogwumike as her time in spotlight was about to shift to the red carpet of the ESPY awards. "Every time someone asks me a question it's just like it starts all over again -- you go through the experience again. And it's just been a very special day. I'm really excited to win this."
For a full summary of all the winners, check out the MaxPreps.com summary.
SBN Seattle's article on Megan Goethals, Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year and University of Washington recruit