On Board With: Sue Wicks

Sue Wicks is a decorated WNBA hall of fame basketball player who returned to her roots and opened her own oyster farm.
Sue Wicks holding oysters
Sue Wicks has achieved great success on and off the court. Tom Schlichter

What do you do after conquering woman’s professional basketball on both a national and international level, been inducted into the Woman’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and served as a U.S. State Department Ambassador of Sport? If you’re Sue Wicks, you go back to your family roots and find a way to work on the water. The 56-year-old New York native has done exactly that, having opened Violet Cove Oyster Company on the fertile flats of Moriches Bay back in 2015. Driven to succeed on the water just as she did on the court, it’s little surprise her company is both thriving and a ground-breaker in the still-budding industry. Although new to raising oysters when launching her latest endeavor, the 1998 Rutger’s University graduate has proven a fast learner, in part, she says, because of her athletic background.

Of all the opportunities available after such a successful professional playing and coaching career, why oyster farming?

There was no grand plan for me to ever work on the water. The thoughts have always been in the back of my mind, but they were like a dormant dream filled with nostalgia rather than an aspiration to actually do it. In a way, they were tinged with sadness because the waters of Moriches Bay where I grew up on Long Island’s South Shore had changed so much over the years. Many of our stocks of marine fish and shellfish had been decimated through the 1980s and ’90s. My dad had been a bayman, and I would think about going on his boat and talking with my grandfather about spearing eels, scalloping and all those wonderful things I did back in high school that now were gone. So, the thought of working on the water was actually past tense to me in terms of being a viable job.

Then, one day, my brother said to me: ‘Hey, a guy has an oyster farm in Center Moriches (my hometown). You should talk to him.’ I got his phone number, went to his house that night, and he convinced me to fill out the applications needed to apply for my own oyster farm—which I opened just one year later. Having retired from basketball and coaching, I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I was going to do next—but from the moment I started filling out that paperwork, I never stopped.

Were you prepared for the new challenges that oyster farming would throw at you?

Not at all. While I had a fishing background, I knew nothing about oystering. There was so much to learn, plus so many of nature’s whims like storms and oyster diseases that can wipe out your entire set in a season. Really, it’s one thing after another with a new challenge popping up weekly. Then there’s my age; I don’t know how long I can physically do this, but I know I can still do it today.

The important thing is to keep taking small steps forward because you can’t figure it out overnight, so I reached out to my father for information, and to others on the water with more experience than I have. What you need for this job is different than common knowledge. Mostly it’s about the weather, the water and how animals propagate, where they live, the seasons changing and how it all affects every living thing in and around the water. It’s just a natural rhythm that takes a long time to learn. It’s very similar to being a basketball player. You can be a superstar, but it’s going to take 10 or 15 years to get to that point as a veteran where you know not everything, but you know a lot. You learn how to navigate situations, and if something new comes up, you draw from the reference points you’ve acquired over the years. I wish I had started this job earlier in life.

I’ve sampled Violet Cove oysters and they are sweet, briny and delicious. What makes them so special?

We’re located in shallow water over sandy bottom, and nearly equidistant between Moriches and Shinnecock inlets. There’s good current there which helps the oysters grow especially well because it ensures plenty of nutrients (food) and fresh, clean water passes over the crop daily. Unlike the oyster cages on many farms, mine are stored in floating containers that allow the oysters to tumble against each other thanks to wave action. That motion chips off the sharp edges of the outer shell and gives them a deep, full cup to hold the meat. The wave action also causes the oyster’s adductor mussel to grow larger, stronger and store more glycogen in the winter months, providing a sweeter taste than oysters in the wild.

Has your sports background helped you get a better handle on oyster farming?

Definitely. It’s like, okay, I’ve learned a lot today even if things went a bit astray. In sports you learn to fail better every day, each new challenge making you a little stronger and refining your game. I try to keep leaning, teaching myself through experience, failing forward if you will. Each little correction you make brings you closer to perfection. Things are going to go bad some days, that’s a given. The important things are having a good attitude, making adjustments, and continuing to move forward.

In addition to playing basketball, you also worked as a United States Sports Ambassador. What was the like?

After playing for the New York Liberty, I became a sports ambassador for the State Department. We’d go to places like Southeast Asia and the Middle East, usually to countries with which the USA had human-rights concerns and often just before the president would visit. These were goodwill programs. There’s something about sports that unites us all, whatever our political differences may be. Getting on the basketball court is very unifying—soccer is another unifying sport on the world stage—so it was beautiful to represent our country and our American values that I so love. Politics is not me, but being an American is me. Meeting people face-to-face allows us to use sport to open new pathways and share ideas. I loved being able to do that.

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Sports, ambassador for the State Department, now a successful oyster farmer on the cutting edge of aquaculture. Do you feel lucky?

Incredibly so. My first adult job was as the highest-paid female basketball player in the world. I was first to make six figures and that was a step for women in sports earning more money. I played in Italy, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Hungry, Spain, France and the Euro leagues, so I got visit many of the major cities around the world while winning national championships in multiple countries. Then I played the last six seasons of my career with the NY Liberty. We went to the finals four times—and lost all four. I played the game hard, and I loved every minute of it.

Today, I’m still incredibly lucky. To say the universe is speaking to you sounds corny, but I feel it does. And if anyone has been on the water—worked on the water—they know there’s a certain spirituality, a quiet, universal voice that moves us. I know it sounds goofy, but it speaks to me. It says, “keep going.”

It fills my heart with joy to be working on the water. Every day is beautiful and different. As I said, my nostalgia about being on the water is tinged with depression, but when I talk about aquaculture, I’m filled with hope for what we can do with it, where we can go with it, and the possibilities that lie ahead.

To learn more about Violet Cove Oyster Company, visit @Violetcoveoysterco on Instagram.