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.

The Fine Line Between Muscles and Masculinity

For a college or professional athlete, there is no escaping the weight room. It is an essential ingredient in the recipe for athletic success when competing at a high level. The combination of strength and skill allows athletes to raise their levels of play to extraordinary heights, while altering their physical appearances in the process.

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

As a female athlete, however, the recipe for athletic success is often complicated by societal pressures and gender norms. Because of the common social stigmas that come with being a muscular woman, female athletes are often faced with a conflicting desire to get stronger in order to improve their athletic performances, while attempting to avoid the attainment of a masculine physique.

For women, a constant pressure exists to be toned, but never jacked. But, at what point does one lose her girlish softness, which the media tells us is essential for femininity? For females athletes, it is somewhere between the squat rack and the barbell.

During my experience as a Division I college athlete, I have personally grappled with the issue of maintaining femininity in a sport that requires actions that are anything but feminine.

For a power sport like softball, where quick and explosive spurts of energy are required for success at the college level, weightlifting involves much more than your typical treadmill workout with an occasional dumbbell thrown into the mix. With movements like cleans, snatches, squats, and presses making up our daily training regimens, my teammates and I often find ourselves struggling to fit into our street clothes without standing out amongst other females in the crowd.

In order to uphold our femininity in the eyes of onlookers, we compete with faces full of makeup, hair tied back with ribbons, and body parts adorned in jewelry. Despite our efforts, however, our physiques still hinder others’ perceptions of us, as we are often judged by both our athletic and non-athletic contemporaries as being manly because of our muscles.

The idea that muscles are reserved solely for men and wanting them is a sin worth reprimanding is still an issue that often plagues female athletes today. According to Vikki Krane, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, society’s perception that muscles equate to masculinity often makes women self-conscious of their appearances, and can lead to eating disorders which hinder health and athletic performances.

Even an elite athlete like tennis star Serena Williams feels self-conscious about her muscular appearance. In 2009, the 33-time Major Champion confessed feelings of insecurity about her well-built arms in an interview with People Magazine.

“I think they’re too muscular. They’re too thick,” Williams said. “Look at Michelle Obama. I’m like, ‘keep wearing strapless dresses!’ But I don’t like mine.”

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Much of these notions of unattractiveness come from the media’s perception that the stronger the female, the more masculine characteristics she will possess.

Judgment of female appearances and the over-sexualization of women cannot be avoided, even in highly competitive settings. When the phrase “female athletes” is searched on Google, the first two results that come up are Men’s Fitness Magazine articles for “The Sexiest Female Athletes of 2014” and the “Top 10 Sexiest Female Athletes of 2013.” In fact, five of the nine initial results found involve the words “hot” or “sexy” in reference to the description of female athletes.

Achieving the media-driven depiction of the “ideal” athletic body hardly involves the bulky biceps and bulging quadriceps that are realities for most high-level female athletes.

The truth of the situation is that there are no easy answers for female athletes because society does not make it easy to be a muscular woman.

However, with all clichés and nuances aside, overcoming the stigma of being a muscular female athlete starts with the athletes themselves. By refusing to accept society’s expectations as acceptable norms, more women will be empowered by their strength instead of intimidated by it.

With initiatives like Nike’s “strong is the new beautiful” t-shirts, popular Twitter hashtags like #girlswholift, and the emerging popularity of the CrossFit Games on ESPN, more attention than ever is being focused on female strength. The continued exposure of muscular women to the general public will make female strength less of a misunderstood enigma, and more of an accepted norm.

And like any other social movement in our world today, with enough people behind the cause, a change in opinions is definitely feasible.