Wilma Afunugo's laugh is contagious. If you didn't know her, you might not realize what she's gone through to be able to genuinely smile today.
The senior on Seattle U women's basketball team is gritty. Some might even stay stubborn. In fact, her family has nicknamed her “Stubborn Queen.”
Afunugo thinks that stubbornness might not be her best trait, but that, along with her experiences as a Redhawk, taught her to persevere.
First, however, we must start with Afunugo's journey to Seattle U, which spans thousands of miles and has plenty of stops along the way.
She was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States in 2004 when she was eight years old. Her mother's siblings had moved around different parts of Texas in order to find a city they could all live close together in, and ended up settling in Plano.
That experience made it so, even though she had never been to Seattle before, Afunugo didn't stress about the move.
“I'm used to living in different areas, so I wasn't scared of coming out here,” Afunugo said. “It wasn't a big deal for me because I can adjust to places pretty quickly.”
So rather than trying to stay close to home or limiting her options for college basketball, she was open to any school that had the best education and the best team fit for her.
Then one day, while shoe shopping with her mom, Afunugo got a call that would help determine the next few years of her life.
Former Seattle U women's basketball coach Joan Bonvicini saw Afunugo play at a summer AAU Tournament in Chicago, and liked what she saw. She told Afunugo she was interested in recruiting her, and asked if she would like to come to Seattle.
When they hung up, Afunugo and her mom immediately got started researching the school, and then called Bonvicini back to say that yes, she would be interested in coming up for a visit.
“It was so exciting,” Afunugo remembers. “To think that someone actually thinks that I'm good enough to play on their team was pretty cool.”
The selling point was three-fold: academics, city and team.
Afunugo describes herself as academically-oriented. She wants to be a medical doctor, so she wanted to choose a school that was focused on academics. On top of offering that, Seattle U is surrounded by hospitals where Afunugo thought she could network.
Then there's the city. Afunugo loved the idea she could walk downtown and shop whenever time allowed. Plus she would be able to see the water, something she didn't have in Plano.
Finally, the vibe she got from the team was “cool,” which solidified her decision.
“I was like, OK, this place seems awesome,” Afunugo said.
It's about balancing your life…
Being a student-athlete at Seattle U has helped Afunugo stay on track to achieving her goals.
A cell molecular biology major, Afunugo is already applying to medical school so she can get started down that path soon after her undergraduate commencement.
Having that added pressure to perform well in the classroom and on the court has been difficult, but she's been able to do well in both. Afunugo credits Seattle U with understanding what student-athletes go through, and giving them ways to succeed academically while also playing a sport.
“The biggest thing is that being a student-athlete here, I feel like they help you out a lot,” Afunugo said. “They want you to succeed. Not only do they want you to be a good athlete, but they want you to be a good student too. They really want you to succeed in the classroom.”
But balancing both hasn't been easy.
Followed by a laugh, Afunugo said that she balanced it by having no social life.
“Freshman and sophomore year it was rough. I was studying in the library a lot,” Afunugo said. “You have to utilize your time right, manage it and hold yourself accountable. Sometimes you're not going to be able to do things that you want to do, and it's understanding that it's OK because you know it's going to pay off. It's about balancing your life, but also knowing that sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Because of the situation you're put in, not everything it going to work out the way you thought it was going to.”
Afunugo wanted to meet her goals badly, though. She knew her hard work would pay off in the future, and so she kept pushing.
“I want to be as great as I can be,” Afunugo said.
All hell has broken loose…
During her sophomore year spring quarter, Afunugo was taking 17 credits of some of the most difficult classes she would end up taking at Seattle U – organic chemistry, a biology course, calculus and research credit.
“I thought I lost my mind,” Afunugo said. “I was so overwhelmed.”
To add to that, Afunugo was recovering from a knee injury.
Back in January of her sophomore year, Afunugo tore a piece of cartilage off her left knee in a game when she landed on it wrong. She continued the rest of the season, playing on what was basically bone-on-bone, and having to fight through pain and swelling.
Over spring break, she had microfracture surgery – an arthroscopic procedure involving drilling holes into the bone – to help re-grow the cartilage.
So, yes, sophomore year was a tough year to say the least.
“It was really stressful. I'm not going to lie, it was not easy. I was stressed every day. And not being able to work out made it worse because I couldn't release that stress anywhere,” Afunugo said. “At that time (of taking 17 credits) I had my knee surgery, so I was like ‘all hell has broken loose'.”
Finally, over the summer Afunugo could start walking a bit and be more independent. But she still couldn't run on the knee until fall quarter of her junior year – right before the beginning of the season.
“I never fully felt like myself,” Afunugo said. “The pain was still there and the surgery didn't work, so I felt devastated. My junior year I really didn't play that much because my knee would react badly to it. It would swell and there would be so much pain.”
But, her stubbornness worked in her favor. She kept fighting.
It wasn't easy to stay on the team, but it wasn't easy to quit, either. So she didn't.
“I had to do some soul-searching,” Afunugo said. “Injuries really get to you. I was online looking up positivity quotes.”
She even bought herself a ring that she still wears today. It reads: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
“I looked at this ring all the time because I didn't feel good,” Afunugo said.
There were a lot of moments when she would question, ‘Why me?'.
“I would think, ‘I can still do it. I'm still going to be great',” Afunugo said. “It took a lot of telling myself, ‘I'm good, I can still do this, it's OK, things happen for a reason.' It was hard. It was really hard.”
Don't let anyone tell you that you can't…
Now, in her senior year, Afunugo is in a place she didn't think she could be in. She played her final season without pain.
“I felt the strongest I have ever felt,” Afunugo said.
In her last season as a Redhawk, Afunugo led the team in offensive rebounds, had the team-high shooting percentage from the floor and earned All-Tournament Team honors at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Tournament after recording three of the best games of her career.
She also was named an All-WAC Academic for the fourth year in a row and won the team's Scholarship, Skill, and Determination Award.
Being part of the basketball program has made Afunugo a more mature person, she said.
“It's made me independent and showed me the importance of leadership and working in a team, and just having things come together and how to put in the hard work,” Afunugo said. “It's taught me so many things about life and pushing through.”
She grew during her time at Seattle U, and the adversity she experienced helped her learn about herself.
“It's taught me how to just do things while things aren't going your way and how to balance your life and priorities,” Afunugo said.
Afunugo hopes that her story of perseverance can be an inspiration to others navigating adversity, especially student-athletes who are trying to figure out if they can succeed in both their schooling and their sport. She hopes they know it's achievable to be great in both.
“Don't let anyone tell you that you can't,” Afunugo said.
It's a lesson she learned through her own collegiate experience, and she wants others to remember her as someone who was able to achieve her athletic and academic goals.
“I want to be remembered for being the best I can be both in the classroom and on the court,” Afunugo said. “Knowing that I put in the work in both areas equally and that I did what I could and achieved my goals. I hope others can see that and know that they can do it as well.”