Mobolaji Akiode’s Passion Ignites Her Purpose for African Female Athletes

(Courtesy of ESPN)

(Courtesy of ESPN)

Mobolaji Akiode is the type of passionate individual who makes others better by her very presence alone. The sort whose palpable aura of determination is understood just through hearing her speak. Yet, it has been a combination of Akiode’s unrelenting passion for success and commanding presence that has created a life full of purpose both on the basketball court during her time as a star player at the Division I and international levels, and with the non-profit organization she started in 2010 called Hope 4 Girls.

“I can remember during her freshman year (at Fordham University), the team was down by two points against Marist with one second left and Mobo was at the line for two shots,” recalled Eric Sanders, Akiode’s academic advisor at Fordham. “She made the first, but missed the second, then took off right for the bus crying because she thought it was her fault that the team lost the game. She was that kind of passionate leader.”

That fiery spirit is the reason, in part, why the 32-year-old American-born Nigerian found herself on espnW’s inaugural Impact 25 list of the most impactful people for women’s sports in 2014.

Akiode, a 2004 Olympian and former co-captain of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team, was stunned to see her name among those of women’s sports trailblazers like Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Mo’ne Davis, Robin Roberts, and even First Lady Michelle Obama.

“To be on the same list as people who are all superstars in their own right is just amazing,” the 2004 graduate of Fordham University said. “It’s such an honor for me, especially because my work doesn’t deal with sports here in America. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on the same list as Michelle Obama again.”

Don’t let Akiode’s humility and unassuming nature fool you about the tremendous impact she has made for African females, however. Akiode’s organization is based in both America and Nigeria and is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of young and disadvantaged African women in basketball. Her groundbreaking work as the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Girls has made her a spearheading leader for international women’s sports initiatives.

Following her three-year stint with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team after college, Akiode worked as an accountant for ESPN in Bristol, CT until 2009. It was then that she felt motivated to start Hope 4 Girls, in order to serve others on a larger scale.

“When I was working at ESPN, I had the opportunity to do community service,” Akiode recollected. “It made me think about Nigeria and what it’s like to grow up as a girl there and I just felt compelled to act. So, I decided to jump two feet in with Hope 4 Girls, and here we are now.”

Since 2010, Hope 4 Girls has created a gateway to basketball for young African women through a series of camps and clinics run by Akiode throughout the calendar year. At each Hope 4 Girls event, the messages delivered to participants go far beyond basketball instruction. Akiode and her staff work to mentor girls about the need for education, health, wellness, and social awareness in today’s global society.

“The mentoring is the most gratifying thing about Hope 4 Girls,” Akiode said. “I have a great time playing big sister, both as a disciplinarian and voice of reason.”

Akiode’s work has extended beyond the confines of the African continent and stretched into the American college basketball landscape. To date, Hope 4 Girls has helped six African girls land basketball scholarships through its fundraising and recruiting efforts, including Division I offers to Virginia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, and Butler.

As a standout during her own college career, Akiode was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference performer who finished her run with the Rams ranked in Fordham’s top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds, respectively. She was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame last January.

Aside from basketball, however, Akiode knows the value of a great education in an enriching environment. The Gabelli School of Business graduate developed her talents and found her voice while at Fordham.

“I really blossomed during my time at Fordham, and not just athletically and academically, but also personally and emotionally, learning that I could be anything that I wanted to be,” Akiode stated. “It was a great foundation that prepared me for the global life that I live now.”

The self-discovery that Akiode experienced as a student-athlete at Fordham is what motivates her to help other African girls find themselves through basketball.

“The girls in Africa don’t know what the possibilities for their lives can be through sports, and that’s something I want to continue to expose to them,” Akiode said. “I want to show girls that they can be leaders in whatever they choose to do.”

Although the recognition she received from espnW serves as a delightful reminder that she is living her purpose and aiding in the progress of African female athletes, Akiode is far from satisfied with her efforts.

“Working towards building a concession of role models in the continent of Africa that young girls can look up to is what motivates me on a daily basis,” Akiode revealed. “I never wake up feeling satisfied.”

While Hope 4 Girls has made great progress for young African women in basketball, plenty of barriers still exist for females interested in sports within the turmoil-ridden continent. And due to the absence of sports for girls in most African schools and a general discouragement of female participation in sports in Africa, Akiode believes it will take an aggressive effort by women across the world to create meaningful and lasting global changes.

“I think that we women need to have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders that says we haven’t come far enough, and we’re not just going to relax because we’ve made some progress,” Akiode stated. “We can do more, and if we continue to work and fight like we haven’t achieved that much, then I think we will continue to break more barriers.”

As long as Mobolaji Akiode and other impactful trailblazers are leading the charge for women in sports both in America and abroad, you can bet an unparalleled amount of passion and purpose will be on full display, and continue to make females eager to tackle any obstacles standing in their way.

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“Hidden Gems” on the Hardwood Key Fordham’s Recent Success

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women’s Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham’s fourth year coach doesn’t find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.

“It’s an untapped market,” Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. “We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal.”

Last season, Gaitley’s gems certainly helped her discover the treasure that she so earnestly sought after: Fordham’s first Atlantic 10 championship and diamond-studded championship rings, to boot.

Gaitley’s championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her,” Gaitley said. “She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family.”

With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season – four of which attend Fordham – Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.

Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.

“For most of the international kids, it’s about relationships,” the 1982 Villanova graduate said. “They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands.”

While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.

“I think for the international player, New York is a huge market,” Gaitley stated. “The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we’ve won, we’ve kind of put the whole package together.”

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.

“The most important thing was the education,” Fomina said. “Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me.”

Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.

“It’s different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student,” the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. “The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things.”

Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley’s championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.

“What attracted me to Fordham was the possibly that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics,” the guard said. “If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn’t be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to.”

For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn’t the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.

“Here, there is more aggressive basketball,” Fomina asserted. “Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger.”

“The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important,” Gjerkes said. “Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home.”

For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

“I think I’ve learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player,” Gjerkes claimed. “I’ve also learned that when you think you can’t go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn’t know that concept before Fordham.”

Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham’s aforementioned former-star Erin Rooney.

“Last year in the summer, Erin would say, ‘I know your legs hurt, but they’re not going to fall off and you’re not going to die,’” Gjerkes said. “It made me better.”

Although Gaitley’s international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more-inclusive skillsets than first-year American college players usually possess.

“The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age,” Gaitley said. “Sometimes over here, if you’re big, you stay in the post, if you’re little, you’re a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill.”

While Gaitley’s quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women’s college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham’s program on the court as it is off of it.

“Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone,” Gaitley said. “It brings a completely different element to our program.”

For Fordham Women’s Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can’t buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham’s recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.

Clinton Creates Winning Culture for Fordham Women’s Soccer

In just one year at the helm of Fordham University’s women’s soccer team, head coach Jessica Clinton has changed the entire complexity of the program. After demonstrating substantial on-field improvements during Clinton’s first season, coupled with a newly established winning mindset, the Rams are primed for great success in upcoming years.

A Tribute to 30 Years of Fordham Softball

This upcoming spring will mark Fordham University Softball’s 30th season in existence. Over the past three decades, the Rams from the Bronx have gone from college softball obscurity to excellence on the national level. Fordham posted its first-ever winning season in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since. Under the tutelage of head coach Bridget Orchard, the Rams have had 12-straight winning seasons and have won the Atlantic 10 title in three out of the last four years. With four recent trips to the NCAA tournament under Orchard’s belt and a firmly established winning culture in place, she believes her program is poised for even greater success in upcoming years. Take a trip down memory lane, and relive 30 years of progress for Fordham University Softball: