Now, this is what we call a starting lineup. Sports Illustrated’s 2022 swimsuit issue may not hit stands until May 19, but the highly anticipated annual issue kicked off with a big reveal (not to be confused with that other big reveal so many were fixated on this week).
For 2022, SI Swim continued to up the ante on inclusion, both featuring its first-ever visibly pregnant model (clad in a bikini), and another proudly showing off her postpartum scar from a C-section. But as the WNBA kicked off its 26th season on May 6, Sports Illustrated celebrated the league by casting five of its stars as 2022 swimsuit models: L.A. Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, New York Liberty guard DiDi Richards, Storm forward Breanna Stewart, and free-agent guard Te’a Cooper.
“It’s been a dream my entire life so it’s crazy to be featured [in the issue], especially after my first year in the WNBA,” Richards told SI Swim. “It was very humbling. My emotions were all over the place. I was like ‘Am I even supposed to be here?’”
Cooper echoed those emotions, admitting the historic milestone is not one she expected to achieve due to the issue’s historic profile. “It says ‘sports’ but they always looked like models, so I would have never thought one day I would be one,” she said. “It was very empowering to be a part of this because of the people I did it with. Everybody’s story was different and just spending time with them, us all being in the WNBA as professionals was overwhelming.”
The quintet was captured on location in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands by photographer Laretta Cooper. The cast was diverse, but the dress code? All black everything.
“We represent a variety of things: of course women, women of color, members of the LGBTQIA2+ community and much more,” said Bird. “The [Swimsuit] issue for so many years has been iconic and has represented a lot for women. Now you are seeing an evolution in what that can mean and what that can look like, and I think the WNBA players being a part of that is what makes it special. There is no better group of women to showcase that evolution.”
“And the fact that some players are mothers—just being able to do all of that and be one of the top athletes is an amazing accomplishment. And for people to be able to see it is empowering,” said Cooper.
Also empowering is the activism much of the league has shown in recent years, standing strongly on advocacy for Black lives, voting rights, and equal pay. The latter is an issue WNBA has long reckoned with, as its players make pennies on the dollar compared to their male counterparts in the NBA—in addition to training, traveling and competing with far fewer team resources.
“Women don’t leave people behind,” Nneka Ogwumike, six-time All-Star and president of the league’s players union tells SI Swim. “It’s intrinsic. I am so happy to work in a career where I experience that every day.”
“They worked hard to get us to where we are now,” said Cooper of her more established colleagues in the WNBA. “It’s still growing and it’s come far—bigger platform and stage, more support, and viewership. But there are so many more windows to break.”
Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).
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