The first time I met Breanna Stewart, in 2012, she was sitting in the stands at the Women's Final Four in Denver after participating in the WBCA High School All-America Game. She was a gangly teenager more interested in eating her french fries than talking to a national media member. Over her next four dominant years at Connecticut, she went from a quiet stalwart who would cede the spotlight to more vocal peers to a confident queen of the moment, a postgame star who wielded a sword to knight her teammates in celebration of their 2016 title.
A few months after that championship, as a 21-year-old rookie with the Seattle Storm, she accepted the ESPY for Best Female Athlete with an impactful speech about the need for gender equality in sports. The next fall, she added her voice to the #MeToo movement with an essay in The Players' Tribune that revealed sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
I caught up with Stewart from Russia, where she's playing with Dynamo Kursk of the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason, to ask her an important question: How did she find her voice and grow confident using it?
ESPN: How did you make that transition from being shy with the media early in your career to really speaking up?
BREANNA STEWART: When I look back, I think one of the first times was probably at the ESPYS, seeing the reaction and how much people appreciated hearing what I have to say and seeing how far my voice really traveled. Because sometimes you don't really know until you're like, "Wow, that's gone all over the place."
What thought went into doing that? It even took people who know you well by surprise.
I wanted it to be something more than just a regular thank-you to my family and my friends. Everybody is thankful for the people in your corner. Why not focus on an area that's equally important and will make more sense? Something that needs to be touched on more than what had happened and me just winning the award. An opportunity to highlight women's equality in sports and in life.
I feel like this social advocacy has come to you in pieces. In 2017, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order instituting a travel ban on citizens from seven countries, you went to Los Angeles International Airport to protest.
I remember being in LA rehabbing, and politically, there just seemed to be a lot going on and protests were happening all over. It was something I wanted to take part in. It just felt really right when I was there. It was just knowing I was trying to be a part of making sure that everyone is accepted in our country.
What went into your decision to reveal your #MeToo story with The Players' Tribune? What impact did that moment have on you?
It was my platform that I could release something very important to me and not have to be directly in the spotlight after it. It was just very calming to actually share a part of my past that I've always kept to myself. Now I just go out every day appreciating my life and all its successes and flaws and embracing who I am. Things happen in your life and they are unfortunate, but that doesn't mean they have to affect the rest of your life.
Do you ever work with your agent [Lindsay Kagawa Colas] to craft things for social media? Or are you just very organic with, "This is what I feel, and I am putting it out there"?
If it's a serious topic, I want to make sure that I have more eyes on it than just myself. So often, people are taken out of context, and then the story doesn't become what you're tweeting about and what you're standing up for, but instead "this person made this tweet." It's good to get advice a little bit.
Did being on The Boardroom help you feel like you can have an even bigger voice?
It was very interesting to be around so many people, whether it was other basketball players or Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter ... and just seeing how social media affects all of us in kind of different ways. I think as athletes, especially, we're walking a fine line between being opinionated but also being a professional athlete and being held to a higher standard than another person.
What do you hope that you can continue to harness or create through social media?
Just to continue to shed light on things that are important to me and use social media as a platform to be able to interact with other people that I normally wouldn't. I think that is something that I want to do better.
This story appears in The Boardroom: Making of a Mogul Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!