On the basketball court, Olympian Elena Delle Donne is a focused, steely-eyed beast. But on Nov. 3, the 6-foot-5 Washington Mystics forward swapped her No. 11 red and blue jersey for a white lace wedding dress — and found herself overcome with emotion as she vowed to spend her life with Amanda Clifton.
After four years of dating, mostly out of the public eye, it was a monumental moment for the WNBA player. "I can't really imagine life without her," says Elena, 28, who was introduced to Amanda in June 2013 through her best friend and then-personal assistant, Meghan McLean, during her rookie season with the WNBA team Chicago Sky.
New to the Windy City, Meghan had been eager to meet new people and quickly befriended Leigh Gordon, who happened to be Amanda's best friend. Meghan started socializing with the pair more regularly, and suspected that Amanda's authentic, playful personality would complement Elena's down-to-earth, goofy demeanor.
"There were many people who were more into who she was as a basketball player than who she was as a person," Meghan explains. "One of the first things that I noticed about Amanda is that she is really, really real."
After Meghan dropped several not-so-subtle hints, Elena did some social media browsing ("I might have stalked her Instagram," she admits) and quickly approved. Amanda did the same and reached the same conclusion.
It wasn't long before Leigh arranged a meet-up for the four of them at Tommy Nevin's Pub in Evanston.
"This is actually terrible, but, to be honest, when Elena got out of the car the first thing I said to her was, 'Wow, you are really tall!' " Amanda, 28, admits with a laugh. "Now that I really know her, I know that is one of the last things you want to say to a tall person."
Despite the gaffe, the two hit it off right away. It could have been their shared professional drive or their love of the sport (Amanda, who is 5-foot-7, played basketball at Illinois State University), but most likely it was their mutual pet obsession (Amanda has a black Lab/border mix named Rasta, and Elena is mom to Wrigley, a Great Dane named after Chicago's famous field. Wrigley has more than 40,000 followers on Instagram).
Days later, Amanda invited Elena to a dog beach on Lake Michigan.
"I feel like you can tell a lot about a person by how they interact with a dog and how they interact with other people's dogs," Amanda says. "If they kind of push away somebody else's dog, I feel like that person can't be trusted."
Elena fit the bill. "She had all of these drooling dogs pile on top of her," Amanda says. "The whole time I was thinking, 'Yep, that's my kind of girl.' "
They quickly became inseparable, and were often making the hour-long drive to see each other. "I was smitten," Elena says. "Obviously, I travel a lot in season, but anytime I was home I felt like we were together."
As they spent more time together, they started slowly telling friends, teammates and colleagues about their relationship. Eventually, they shared photos and funny videos of them pranking each other on social media. But because of the high-profile nature of Elena's career, they held off making public statements.
"I feel like a lot of people assumed we were best friends . . . probably because there was zero PDA. Like, none," Amanda says. "I honestly didn't know if I wanted anybody to ever know, because Elena is a very public figure . . . [and] I'd rather stay under the radar."
On her 24th birthday that September, Amanda asked Elena to be exclusive. A month later, Elena invited Amanda to her family home in Delaware.
"Amanda was actually the first person that I have ever introduced to my family as my girlfriend," Elena says. "We are super, super close-knit, probably more than most families, so that was a little bit intimidating."
There was one person in particular whom Elena wanted Amanda to meet: her older sister Liz. Born blind and deaf, and with autism and cerebral palsy, Liz can communicate only through touch and scent.
"The way I see how people interact with Liz makes me feel a certain way toward that person," Elena says. The two got along immediately. "She pulled Amanda's head in and gave her a big sniff . . . [and] started giggling."
A year in, they moved in together. Not long after, however, Elena, who suffers from chronic Lyme disease, had a flare-up and called Amanda from the road.
"I just can't seem to get better. I really need to go home," she told her. Emotionally and physically exhausted from her symptoms, which include severe migraines and muscle pain, Elena had to stop playing midway through Chicago Sky's 34-game season, and headed back to Delaware.
Without being asked, Amanda loaded the dogs in the car and started driving. "I had never even been to the East Coast, like never New York, never anything," says Amanda, who now runs Elena's basketball academy. "Next thing I knew, I was driving from Chicago to Delaware to move into a house a mile down the road from her parents."
Amanda stayed there for a month. "She drove me to my doctor appointments, which were every day, and sat with me, for hours, while I got my IVs," Elena says. "It was terrible and boring . . . but she was there, and that made it so much better." When they returned to Chicago, they began discussing marriage and starting a family.
On June 2, 2016, the pair returned to the dog beach, where Amanda surreptitiously slipped a diamond ring on Wrigley's collar. When Elena finally noticed the ring, she assumed it was a prank, but her supposition was quickly dispelled when Amanda took a knee.
A few weeks later, it was Elena's turn, surprising Amanda with an intimate, eight-course dinner at home of their favorite foods, including Chicago chain Portillo's crinkle-cut fries. At the end of the meal, Elena brought out Rasta, donning a wedding veil, and a sign that said "Marry me?"
The couple alluded to their engagement on social media and later publicly confirmed it in a Vogue magazine profile, leading up to the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, where Elena earned her first Olympic gold medal. "I hope sometime in the future people don't have to come out anymore and can just be in love with someone — and have it not be a huge story," Elena says. "I think we're getting there."
This past February, the couple moved to Virginia after Elena orchestrated a trade to the Washington Mystics to be closer to her family. It wasn't long before the wedding website The Knot was knocking on their door, offering them an opportunity to cover their expenses and promote them as its first same-sex Dream Wedding couple.
"It was a no-brainer," Elena says. "We are all about normalizing being gay, and what better way to do that than with The Knot?"
In lieu of gifts, guests were invited to contribute to the Elena Delle Donne Foundation, which benefits special needs programming and Lyme disease research.
On Nov. 3, they were married at the Hempstead House at Sands Point Preserve on Long Island. The ceremony was live-streamed on The Knot's Facebook page, which boasts more than half a million fans.
Elena's eyes grew watery as Amanda glided down the aisle to a live, instrumental version of Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do." Matchmakers Leigh and Meghan flanked the couple as their maids of honor. By the time the officiant, Elena's agent, Erin Yates Kane, announced the kiss, both brides were wiping away joyful tears.
Later that evening, nearly 200 guests — including Mystics coach Mike Thibault, BET co-founder and Mystics president Sheila Johnson and WNBA president Lisa Borders — watched the couple cut into a towering 11-tier wedding cake.
"I don't really know who I am anymore without Amanda by my side," Elena said days before the wedding. "I guess our friends really knew what they were doing when they paired us up."