Our first Athlete Series contributor is Temi Fagbenle (@temifagbenle), a former Harvard and USC basketball star. Born in Baltimore, MD, Temi lived briefly in Nigeria as a young child then grew up in London, England. She moved to the US when she was 15 to attend Blair Academy prep school in NJ. Temi currently plays for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and the Great Britain National Team. She is also interested in avant-garde, out-of -the-box modeling and acting.
Temi was interviewed in June by Love Squad writer and former Harvard teammate Marissa Brock.
What age did you first get into sports? When you were a kid, would you ever have envisioned yourself pursuing a career as a professional athlete?
My parents, especially my father, were very big on keeping active and my family in general is quite competitive, so I got into sports at a young age. My father had me actively playing tennis at age 9 or 10. Prior to that, I participated in general school athletics. I would then begin competing in football (real football) at age 11, and I started basketball when I was 14.
Me and my sister planned on being the next Venus and Serena Williams, but that dream ended because private lessons became too expensive (I was also still quite a work in progress) and I reluctantly picked up basketball instead. I remember at age 15 or so, watching older players on my club team and players in the WNBA and thinking, I can definitely get to that level and even surpass these players. It became another goal to accomplish.
When most people think of professional athletes, they assume that they must love their sport more than anything. In reality, most athletes have more of a love-hate relationship with their sport. What has your relationship been to basketball over the years?
Basketball has definitely been a love-hate relationship for me. When I first started at 14 years old, I hated it because it was the sport that came after my first love, tennis, which I didn’t want to stop. But I took to basketball quickly and the more I learned and improved, the more I enjoyed it. Then, a couple of years after I started, I developed chronic patella tendonopathy in my knees, and my relationship with basketball became strained. I was constantly in pain.
Sometimes to the extent that I couldn’t even walk properly. My legs would randomly give way when walking and my knees would hyperextend while playing. Sometimes I missed practices, and when it was really bad, even my game minutes had to be limited. During these times of basically debilitating pain, I felt weak and useless on the court, as I physically couldn’t move the way I wanted to. All I wanted to do was dominate the way I knew I was capable. Because of the pain that was associated with playing the sport, I found it increasingly hard to like, let alone love, basketball.
Fast forward to now (specifically from January 2017 to date). After about 8 years of managing severe pain, I am the strongest I’ve ever been. The stronger my body gets, the less pain I’m in. From January ’17 to April ’17, I worked nearly everyday with an amazing trainer, a.k.a my Human Optimization Specialist, David Buer, who I worked with to strengthen my body and mind in a way no other athletic trainer/physiotherapist/doctor/you name it has ever been able to do with me. I feel powerful and agile again, and we have only just scratched the surface of my athletic potential. I am now working on viewing any pain I may feel as weakness leaving my body (there is some irreversible damage done from years of tendonopathy), as I know my body is now strong enough to absorb the forces created on the court. In short, I’m kind of enjoying basketball right now!!
You’ve struggled with numerous injuries and physical setbacks over the course of your college basketball career. What motivated you to keep going?
My motivation to keep playing, apart from the strong desire to impose my will on any opponent, is my family. My parents and siblings have been a source of support for me. From my mother’s words of wisdom and my younger sister’s poems, to my father’s matter-of-factness and my little brother’s laughter, I derive strength from each of them in different ways. I have two strong parents and 11 fantastic siblings, so that’s a LOT of motivation!
How has your mindset as an athlete translated to other aspects of your life?
From a young age I have been very competitive. I come from a competitive family – what with 11 amazingly talented siblings – and we’re good at finding ways to compete with each other. From basketball to board games to debates, competing comes naturally to us. My competitiveness obviously works for basketball, but I have had to tone it down many times off the court in the presence of non-family members.
Aside from getting embarrassed at my seeming over competitiveness, yet annoyed at other’s lack of understanding that winning is everything, I have used my athlete mindset as an advantage off the court. Traits such as assertiveness, confidence and a positive mindset have helped me achieve my other goals.
While your current “job” is that of a professional basketball player, you also have a master’s degree and you model in your spare time. Talk about how you’ve handled juggling multiple career interests at once.
I made like Nike and just did it. Seriously though, I don’t put much thought into acknowledging how many things I’m doing, I just go for things I’m interested in. It’s been fun pursuing different desires, and I plan on continuing to find things that interest me. It’s definitely a challenge, but to me, most things worth doing aren’t easy-peasy.
If you were to think ahead five years from now, what do you see for yourself?
Five years from now I’ll be 29. Wow. I don’t know. I would want to be financially stable. Enough so that I could live the way I wanted while being able to spend money on family. I see myself with a doctorate…just kidding, no more institutions of higher learning for me for a long while. I used to say I wanted kids before 30, but that’s probably not happening. I can’t definitively say where I see myself in five years because there are so many possibilities in my mind. I’ll be doing something awesome though.
Any words of wisdom to impart of the next generation of aspiring female professional athletes?
Just go for it. If you want something, you’ll put in the work, if you don’t, you’ll make excuses. It’s as simple as that. Find something you want to get out of bed to do. Don’t doubt yourself, as doubt inevitably ends in failure. If you’ve lost confidence, it is imperative that you find it again. Work on your skills, visualize, say affirmations and positive self talk. I like to play like I have no f***s to give. These are the times I play my best. I am poised, I am confident, I am calm and I am in control. Put in your best and be at peace with the consequences.
Our Love Squad Athlete Series aims to celebrate the elite athlete in all of us by telling the stories of women for whom sports and fitness have played a defining role in their lives. Whether they are former college ballers, professional athletes, or career fitness instructors, sports and fitness helped shape them into the people they are today.
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