A'ja Wilson's Claiming Her Place on the Olympic Stage
Just two years after the WNBA named her Rookie of the Year, the 24-year-old South Carolina native and current Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson earned the league's coveted Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in 2020. But Wilson has established herself as a force beyond the basketball court as well.
She's been outspoken about everything from social justice reform and mental health awareness to her own battle with dyslexia, which led to the 2019 launch of the A'ja Wilson Foundation, an organization that provides resources for kids with learning disabilities. Despite all she's accomplished, Wilson still feels like there's more to prove as she prepares to head to Tokyo to compete in her first Olympics this summer. "There are so many standards that people want you to meet, but you're never going to meet them all," she says. "You have to maintain your confidence through the highs and lows without coming off as cocky or diva-ish. Even in 2021, I still run into people who don't give me the respect I deserve just because I'm a woman who's good at a sport. But I don't belong in the kitchen, and I'm definitely not about to make you a sandwich."
Growing up, Wilson didn't envision a future career in sports. "I was never the athletic type because I don't like to sweat, and even now I'm a low-key bougie type of athlete because sweat disgusts me," she says with a laugh. "But my family encouraged me to play basketball, and then I just loved being around my teammates." During her senior year at the University of South Carolina, Wilson and the Gamecocks pulled off a surprise victory in the SEC Championships in what she deems her most badass moment to date. "I love being the underdog," she says. "Proving the haters wrong is fun, and you're able to play freely when there aren't expectations."
Wilson has continued to beat the odds, earning the WNBA's top accolade during the pandemic. "Early on last season I wasn't even in the running for MVP," she recalls. "I was focused on playing for my teammates and getting out of the bubble [in Bradenton, Fla.]. I missed feeding off the fans' energy and building that momentum. We always took that for granted."
Wilson has recently made a concentrated effort to prioritize her mental health. "As Black women, we feel like we always have to be strong and independent, which is tough and wears on us a lot," she says. "I'm trying to be more vulnerable for the next generation of Black girls who see me on TV."
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Wilson addressed her young fans in "Dear Black Girls," a candid essay for The Players' Tribune. "I felt like Breonna Taylor's death was being swept under the rug, which is the story of the Black woman's life through and through, and I wanted other Black women to know that I see and understand them," says Wilson, who opened up about her struggles with anxiety and depression in "Dear Black Women," a follow-up piece. "Black women constantly wear masks to be perfectionists or whatever they have to be just to get by. But at some point, you've got to take the mask off and say, 'Hey, this is me.' And that's what I did."
When she's not on the court, Wilson embraces her downtime. "I've been binge-watching The Blacklist on Netflix and just finished Them on Amazon Prime Video," she says. "I love me some The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, too, and music-wise, I'm into R&B. I'm a young girl with an old soul." She also recently launched her own company, Burnt Wax Candles, which sells luxury candles with names like "MVP," and "Rookie of the Year," for $40 apiece. "My mom came over and told me that the number of candles in my house was absurd," Wilson remembers. "She suggested I start my own company, and I was like, 'You know what? I can!'"
Another badass woman who continues to inspire Wilson is her late grandmother. "She always carried this old fashioned leather coin purse, which I have now and take with me everywhere; that's where I get my power." In January, Wilson was honored with a statue at her alma mater, a campus on which her own grandmother couldn't set foot during segregation. "When people see that statue, I want them to think about the person I've been within my community, not just what I've done in the arena," she says. "It's all about leaving your legacy."
Learn more about this year's Olympic hopefuls at teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23 on NBC.
For more stories like this, pick up the July 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 18th.