Utah Utes women’s basketball players get a lesson on leadership in the Amazon

Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson participated in the Ute Leadership Academy over the summer.

(John Locher | AP) From left, Utah's Kennady McQueen (24), Gianna Kneepkens (5) and Jenna Johnson (22) celebrate after defeating Oregon in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Pac-12 women's tournament Friday, March 4, 2022, in Las Vegas.

Nestled deep in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador is Verde Sumaco, a small village accessible only by an hours-long canoe ride in water that sometimes wasn’t deep enough to keep it afloat. It’s a place where people regularly visit on humanitarian missions to help the people there build roads and bridges and paint buildings while learning about the lives of the locals.

That’s where Utah women’s basketball sophomores Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson found themselves over the summer. They, along with a group of other Utes student-athletes, participated in the Ute Leadership Academy, a 10-week program that culminated in a weeklong stay in Ecuador.

Kneepkens and Johnson played important roles for the Utes last season. Johnson led the team in scoring, averaging 12 points per game. Kneepkens was right behind her with 11.8. The pair were regular starters despite their freshman statuses.

(University of Utah) Utes sophomore women's basketball player Gianna Kneepkins, right, watches one of her fellow University of Utah student-athletes help a young villager dunk a basketball in Verde Sumaco, Ecuador.

The 2022-23 season, though, should feature them even more with the graduations of Dru Gylten, Andrea Torres, Brynna Maxwell and Maka Jackson. Knowing that they’d be expected to up their leadership, the pair thought applying for the academy made sense, especially after first learning about it from Gylten’s experience the year before.

“I think if we’re confident in ourselves and know who we are as people and as leaders, that helps our whole team,” Johnson said as she sat next to Kneepkens inside the basketball training facility.

Three of the seven days in Ecuador were spent in Verde Sumaco helping the people pave a new sidewalk and build a new bridge. Part of the work involved hauling buckets of sand up the nearby river to make cement.

Aside from the manual labor, the group went gold panning (Kneepkens found a speck and gave it to the locals) and did various activities with the villagers including playing sports, painting their nails, making necklaces and learning traditional dances.

(University of Utah) Utes sophomore women's basketball player Jenna Johnson paints the nails of a villager in Verde Sumaco, Ecuador.

Kneepkens and Johnson enjoyed the touristy side of the entire Ecuadorian experience as well — from Kneepkens becoming an “Egg Master” for successfully balancing an egg on a nailhead at the Museo de Sitio Intiñan at the equator, to Johnson learning the “a little stressful” nature of bartering with shop owners.

The trip was outside of the comfort zones of both women. Kneepkens, for instance, had never been out of the country before going to Ecuador. Johnson likes structure and an itinerary, but had to accept just showing up there without knowing much ahead of time.

But the value they got from leaving their comfort zones and serving the people of Verde Sumaco gave them new perspectives on leadership and life.

“Being able to develop in those leadership areas is important because people are watching you,” Kneepkens said. “If you can learn to do the right thing when you’re younger rather than older, that can be an impact on someone else, even if you don’t know them.”

Coach Lynne Roberts said she was “very, very impressed” that Kneepkens and Johnson took the time and effort to get themselves out of their comfort zones. She has seen changes in those two players since they came back from Ecuador.

“The one thing that I would say that’s kind of translatable was they both came back wanting to kind of dive into taking on bigger leadership roles, kind of pushing themselves beyond what maybe is comfortable at this stage of their career,” Roberts said.

(University of Utah) Utes sophomore women's basketball players Gianna Kneepkins and Jenna Johnson dance in a conga line with villagers in Verde Sumaco, Ecuador, as part of their experience with the Ute Leadership Academy.

Kneepkens and Roberts now meet every two to three weeks and discuss a chapter or two of a book titled “The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual” by Jeff Janssen. And Johnson has been much more vocal in practice.

“They’re way more intentional about what they’re doing from a leadership perspective, and undoubtedly it came from this experience,” Roberts said.

Since she was young, Kneepkens has been interested in various types of leadership opportunities. She served on the student council and was voted class president in high school.

But the program is designed to teach student-athletes that leadership manifests itself in various forms. Johnson said she thought she’d learn to be more of a “rah-rah vocal leader” though the experience.

Both players, though, came away with an idea of leadership that allows them to grow as people but also be true to themselves.

“I don’t have to change who I am to become a better leader,” Kneepkens said she learned. “I can use what I already have. … Just trusting who I am and being confident in what I have and my abilities, that is all I need to be. I don’t need to be someone else. I don’t need to be the loudest person ever in the world to be a good leader.”