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Fast mover

Swarthmore’s Nnenna Akotaobi can no longer consider herself an athletic late-bloomer

Nnenna Akotaobi

Nnenna Akotaobi competed with her older brothers relentlessly while growing up in Thornton, Colorado.

In any pursuits they chose, she was not far behind: When Akotaobi’s brother Uzo joined the city’s summer track program, his sister refused to be outdone. She ran right after him – and in the process caught the eye of Thornton High School teacher and basketball coach Michael Granderson. 

Today, the former NCAA Division I student-athlete is the associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator at Swarthmore. And, just five years removed from her student-athlete days, she is already a member of the Division III Management Council. When asked how she got where she is, Akotaobi points to those childhood experiences.

“I was definitely a late bloomer in basketball, but my development was so quick that it wasn’t just something I did on my own,” says Akotaobi, who turned that training and hard work into a full athletics scholarship to compete as a forward at the University of Denver, where she became the first student-athlete in the program’s history to play in 120 games. “I owe all of that to what coach Granderson saw in me and how he developed me into a basketball player, a leader, an athlete and a captain.”

As the daughter of a first-generation Nigerian-American family, Akotaobi had a traditional Nigerian upbringing at home, but her parents also encouraged her to embrace American customs. That background led her to seek similar experiences on Denver’s campus, and she took note of the athletics department’s diversity efforts. 

“There was an associate position specifically for diversity and community relations,” she says. “It really affected us to see a person of color as an administrator, but also somebody who really cared about making quality experiences for us as students of color.”

As she approached graduation, Akotaobi searched for career opportunities that combined diversity with intercollegiate athletics. Finally, the right position opened in Division III’s Midwest Conference. Akotaobi knew nothing about Division III, but five years later she considers taking the position to be the best decision of her career. While working at the conference office, Akotaobi developed a broad knowledge of the division. That experience led her to Grinnell in 2010, where she worked as coordinator for diversity and achievement in athletics and assistant coordinator for athletics facilities and event management. She left in 2012 to take her current post at Swarthmore.

“I look at our student-athletes and their experiences – getting to study abroad, pursuing other interests outside of sports, but still having a strong athletics identity – and I love it, that balance,” she says. 

As a young administrator, Akotaobi tends not to tell people her age. At a recent meeting, Division III Management Council members recalled an event that occurred in the 1980s, and asked whether she remembered it. 

“I said, ‘I think I was just an idea. I don’t think I was quite born yet,’” Akotaobi says with a laugh. “It really shines a light on how privileged I am, to get the opportunities that I’ve had at such a young age.”

 

Meet My Mentors

Michael Granderson
Girls Basketball Coach, Thornton High School

“I think that was the first person I could ever call a mentor, because he was so committed and dedicated — not just to the sports he coached, but the people he developed through those sports.”

Peg Bradley-Doppes 
Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, University of Denver

“So much of Peg is about empowering female administrators. She’s phenomenal for forging gender equity and leadership for women in collegiate athletics. A lot of the women that she has mentored at the University of Denver have, in turn, supported me, in Peg’s ‘Tree of Mentorship,’ so to speak.”

 

Chris Graham
Former Commissioner, Midwest Conference

“He taught me a lot about professionalism and engaging myself in the division and the governance structure and conference structure, to gain all this knowledge about what it means to be a part of Division III.”

 

 

Heather Benning
Commissioner, Midwest Conference;
Former Director of Athletics, Grinnell College

“She was very visionary where (my) position was concerned (coordinator for diversity and achievement in athletics). To me, it was such an innovative thing. They’re popping up more and more now, especially in the past three or four years, because people are seeing how successful it is — particularly at the Division III level.”

 

About Champion

NCAA Champion celebrates college sports and the people who give it a special place in American society, from the coaches and athletics directors who shape the collegiate experience to student-athletes who achieve as much off the field as on it. Champion entertains and informs while focusing on the most important contributor to college sports: the student-athlete, whose successes provide rich and far-reaching meaning to the definition of what makes a Champion.

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