CINCINNATI (BVM) — Niah Woods has always been a great athlete, and showed such through her high school career playing basketball and competing in track and field at Summit Country Day School. Woods has continued that success at Howard University, competing in the same two sports. But what really makes this athlete special is the impact she is making in the Washington D.C. community outside of athletics.
Woods began playing basketball around age 10, following in the footsteps of her parents who both played the sport collegiately. She immediately fell in love with the game thanks to her family’s passion in the sport, and also seeing her brother and cousins play and succeed on the hardwood.
During her middle school years, Woods grew a love for running as well, and started competing in track.
The 20-year-old would go on to attend high school at Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, where she would join an elite basketball program. Over her four years as a Silver Knight, Woods and her team would go an eye-popping 100-7 under coach Beth Simmons. Personally, Woods was a first team all-conference and honorable mention all-state player.
Meanwhile, Woods’ track career would begin to take off as well. In both her junior and senior years, Woods helped lead her team to state and was also able to compete at state individually. In addition, she was named a conference MVP and all state first-team runner while at Summit Country Day. She holds those accomplishments — as well as spending time with teammates and making her school proud — as some of her most cherished memories from her high school athletic career.
Throughout her years of high school, Woods also found time to give back to the next generation. The star athlete volunteered at her coach’s school to teach kids basketball, but also enjoyed annual field days held at Summit Country Day where she had the opportunity to further help out and teach kids.
Woods did have multiple offers to play college sports. She actually first visited Howard University during her senior year of high school by mistake when she thought she was going to visit another school. However, that accident turned into something great.
“I visited Howard by accident,” Woods said. “They really weren’t even on my radar but that accident turned into one of the best decisions I ever made. As soon as I stepped foot on campus I was smiling and I really just loved the environment I was in. The school has so much Black excellence and intelligence which is empowering, and that day I stepped on campus I knew I wanted to be a part of it and contribute to it.”
Woods has continued her athletic career for the Bison, playing basketball her first two years at the school. Typically coming off the bench, the 5-foot-5 guard has grown very close with her teammates while enjoying the experience of playing for an NCAA Division I women’s basketball program.
In track and field, Woods competes in both the long jump and triple jump for coach David Oliver. This past season, Woods set a personal best in the triple jump. But her favorite memory of collegiate track and field through her sophomore season gives a bit of insight into why this athlete is so special.
“My favorite memories so far honestly are just every single morning that we have a 6 a.m. practice,” Woods said. “Even though I have to wake up early and it might still be dark outside, I tell myself, ‘I get to do this every morning and not everyone gets to do this.’ Most athletes don’t get the chance to run track in college, especially not under a former Olympian as a coach. That’s what really keeps me going.”
But Woods’ biggest contributions don’t just come within athletics. Woods is part of the Grassroot Project, which is an organization that allows athletes from the four Division I universities in the Washington D.C. area — American, Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard — to come together to learn primarily about sexual health, physical health, mental health and nutrition.
Once they learn this curriculum, the athletes go to local schools in the D.C. area to teach young students through fun games and activities. A further explanation of the organization and what they are trying to accomplish is given on their website, grassrootproject.org:
“We are a team of more than 1,000 NCAA varsity athletes and 5,000 DC teens who are committed to making our city healthier. The Grassroot Project capitalizes on the excitement, relatability, and popularity of sports to provide much-needed health literacy and social empowerment programs to DC teens.
“The only way for us to succeed is to believe in the power of youth to make a difference. In addition to providing health education to DC teens, we invest in the leadership training, cultural competency, and professional skills of hundreds of NCAA varsity athletes who serve as our program facilitators.”
After seeing some of the Grassroot group go on a trip to Africa — while also having friends involved with the project — Woods decided to give the organization a try, and was hooked from the very first day.
“I remember my very first day — I fell in love immediately,” Woods said. “There’s not a lot of people who have a passion for helping others and especially helping young kids. To be surrounded by people who want to make an impact as big as that is truly a beautiful thing.”
Ultimately, the impact she is able to help have on the kids is the most rewarding part of the project for Woods and others. She also believes it can continue to grow in years to come as it already has after beginning with about 40 students visiting just five schools over a decade ago.
“I definitely believe this can continue to grow as it has,” Woods said. “I’m truly grateful I’m able to make an impact on childrens’ lives and you can just see the joy on their faces whenever people from the Grassroot Project walk in. We’re not just going in to teach them and leave. Instead, we’re building relationships.”
Over the summer, Woods was recognized for some of the great work she does with the Grassroot Project. In May, the 20-year-old was nominated for the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award, to be presented at the ESPYs in June. Both Woods and another member of the project, Elijah Murphy, were nominated by Tyler Spencer — founder and executive director of the Grassroot Project.
Although Woods found out she was going to win the award before the ESPYs officially aired, she was still in shock and awe of the honor.
“I was honestly shocked,” Woods said. “I never thought that deciding to follow my passion and join the Grassroot Project would lead to this much recognition. I’m obviously very grateful for it but just never expected it.”
— Howard Track & Field (@HUTrackandField) June 22, 2020
To be able to hear a legend such as Billie Jean King officially select her for the award and call her name also meant a lot to the Howard athlete.
“Billie Jean King is such an amazing woman,” Woods said. “The fact that she saw something in me and Elijah is truly a blessing. Hearing your name from someone as big as her is a special honor and I hold it in my heart every day. I think the Grassroot Project is known around the country now as well and that’s what really counts.”
A psychology major and chemistry and sociology double minor, Woods hopes to become a psychiatrist and own her own practice someday. Despite her involvement in the community and athletics, Woods still finds time to put in work in the classroom, and was named to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Commissioner’s All-Academic team this year during the basketball season.
As she heads into her junior year at Howard, Woods will end her basketball career and focus solely on track and field. After having her freshman track and field season end due to an injury, and this past season end early due to COVID-19, Woods hopes to continue to break her personal records and finally make it to the indoor and outdoor conference championship meets.
A talented athlete, student, and individual, Woods has an exciting two years left at Howard, and a bright future beyond college. She has her professional goals set, but also hopes to keep giving back in the future, and will always cherish her opportunity with the Grassroot Project.
“If anyone ever has an interest in helping out in their community I would say, ‘just do it,’” Woods said. “You never know whose life you can impact just by smiling at them. I didn’t go looking for the Grassroot Project, the Grassroot Project found me. I really hope after I graduate I can still be connected with it and hopefully start some kind of organization on my own as well. The Grassroot Project has changed my life and I’m forever grateful.”