Liz Cambage knows what it’s like to be different, and she’s unafraid to show her vulnerabilities. That’s how she’s grown her label as not just one of the WNBA’s top players, but as undoubtedly the league’s biggest voice in-person and on social media. She’s opened her Instagram account to talk about anything from her battles with anxiety and depression to her dancing moods after the league rescinds her technical fouls. Her relatability is apparent, and behind the scenes, it’s resonating with fans of the growing women’s basketball market.
After Michael Olson read an anecdote about himself in a recent SB Nation piece, he reached out to me on Twitter.
The 16-year-old from a small Minnesota town hardly followed the WNBA until two years ago, when Team USA’s Olympic dominance led to a goal medal in Rio. Now, he considers Cambage to be like his sister.
Michael became a Liz Cambage fan before he’d even exchanged Instagram direct messages with the 26-year-old Dallas Wings superstar. He felt a connection to her because not only did he suffer the same Achilles rupture playing basketball Cambage did, but he too has gone through bouts of anxiety, depression, and bullying for his race and sexual orientation.
Cambage has been very open about her mental health struggles:
A prompt for fans to reach out led Michael to share his experiences with Cambage through Instagram DMs. While she was a stranger to him, he knew she’d be able to relate.
“It took about a day,” Michael told SB Nation, “and then she responded with a ‘Oh my God you’re such an incredible person. You’ve been on such an incredibly journey with all the adversity you’ve had to deal with.’ I was just so taken aback.”
A 6’8 female athlete born to a Nigerian father and Australian mother, Cambage had trouble relating to anyone in Australia, and it’s a big part of the reason she does her part now helping others as an established basketball celebrity.
“I think in Australia things are changing,” Cambage told SB Nation, “but it is very whitewashed in Australia. We say we’re a multi-cultural country, but every time I turn on the TV I just see white girls with blonde hair. Growing up, I never really had any POC, people of color, role models because I was like, ‘I don’t see anyone who looks like me on the TV.’ I see Beyonce and Ri-Ri on video hits, but I don’t look like them. I couldn’t relate to anyone.”
Cambage is now that person to relate to for Michael.
“How she’s treated him has been a godsend,” Shelly Olson, Michael’s mom, told SB Nation. “He’s hitting some pain right now and we’re helping him through it. But this person, who has no money in the game, has taken him under her wing and given him this spunk and spirit and he needed that right now in his life.
“I would love to meet her someday. I’d tell her ‘Thanks for giving him a little bit of reason to ... live,” Shelly Olson continues. “Not that he was destitute, but he needed somebody to take an interest in him and it’s helped him a lot.”
Michael and Liz have met in person twice now and, according to Michael, exchange messages every month or so as she checks in on him. The two first met at a Wings-Lynx game in Minneapolis, and once she was named an all-star, Cambage gifted tickets, a T-shirt and a bag to one of her biggest fans to come see her play. Michael showed up in a custom Cambage jersey despite growing up in a Lynx household, which she of course autographed.
“She hugged me,” Michael said, “and told me how proud of me she is and how crazy it is that we came into each other’s paths.”
It was surreal for him. But it was surreal for her, too.
“There’s no feeling like seeing a young girl or boy wearing your jersey,” Cambage told SB Nation. “That makes my heart explode every time I see it.
“It honestly means a lot that there’s kids looking up to me and I hope I’m doing them justice. At the end of the day I want everyone to know that they can do and be whatever they want with no judgement.
“Own who you are.”