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WNBA’s Elena Delle Donne on tuning out judgment to define who you are

The Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

Elena Delle Donne, 32, is a professional basketball player for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, who were swept in the first round of the 2022 playoffs. She helped the team win its first championship in 2019; is a three-time starting all-star, two-time MVP, and rookie of the year; and has won Olympic gold for the United States.

Stepping way back, can you talk about when you first got the bug, when you first realized that you were really good at the game and really loved it?

I first started playing because I have an older brother — three years older — and, really, whatever sport he was doing, I just wanted to do it, too, and be able to play with him and his friends. And I was able to hold my own. And then, the moment I knew I was really good was when I started playing AAU basketball and traveling. I mean, in travel ball, our team was good, and I’d been good on the team, but to go to the nationals and then see all the different 10-year-olds across the country and feel like I was one of the best, that was a little bit shocking, I think, to both me and my family.

Also, basketball helped me get a little bit more comfortable in my body because it was the only place where I felt my height was a good thing. I was definitely always much taller than the boys and the girls in my grade. And when I was young it was really hard. You deal with some mean comments from kids. Feeling like you’re different isn’t always the greatest thing as a kid. I don’t know exactly when I hit 6-5, but in high school I was definitely in the 6-foot range. So when I got to the basketball court, it was like, “Oh my goodness, this height is a good thing, actually — and there’s other really tall people.” So I think I found not just a love in basketball, but a comfort in it, too, where I could really be myself and be celebrated for being different.

One of basketball’s most accurate shots is a father-daughter production

You’ve spoken about the importance of visibility — both the visibility as a female athlete and visibility of being different.

I think it’s huge that we have a bunch of different role models out there for kids to be able to look up to and maybe connect with something that they are feeling. As a kid, I was obsessed with Sheryl Swoopes and Michael Jordan, being two of the greatest players to ever play the game. But I was also confused about my sexual orientation for a while, too. I never had gay role models that I could really look up to, and there weren’t really books or commercials or any of that showing gay couples. That wasn’t around when I was younger. So it was a very confusing feeling trying to figure out, “Is something wrong with me? What is this? Do I need to push this aside? This is not good.”

So for me, being tall and being gay and being a female athlete, all those things, it’s just so important that there’s more of a diverse visibility of role models. I actually didn’t feel that comfortable until college when I was able to just go and be myself and start exploring. And then when I got to the WNBA, I was like, “My goodness, this is the most incredible accepting league that I’ve ever seen!” I felt just so safe and comforted in this league, in the W. And not just with players who were out, but also fans and how pride was so celebrated. It was something I had never experienced before.

You must hear from fans all the time. Do you have stories that stay with you?

I have a lot of fans who are in the LGBTQ+ community who have thanked me for just being so open on social media about my marriage and love with my wife, Amanda. I’ve even had parents say, like, “Because you’ve shown your love with Amanda, it’s really helped me to figure out how to go about my child coming out to me.” I love to hear that. Unfortunately, I feel like with human nature, you almost just have to see more things, yourself, to understand, so I think it is very important to show our life and that our love for one another should be celebrated. Hopefully it can help others to understand or others who are struggling just to be comfortable being who they are.

Do you also get blowback?

A long time ago I decided not to read all the comments and not to get caught up in that because social media can be a great tool where you can connect with people and share your life and your story, but it can also be negative and hurtful because people get this powerful voice when they can hide behind a screen. So I’m sure, yes, I get pretty tough comments here and there, but I try just not to even pay attention to it. And the love that I receive from fans is way bigger than a couple trolls here and there.

Elena Delle Donne is competing against herself now

This reminds me a little of when you were transitioning to UConn as the number one recruit out of high school and then decided [the first week of summer training] to go home for family reasons — having to make that decision as an 18-year-old, and having it be so public, with people you don’t even know commenting and criticizing.

That was really tough, especially because I was younger, and I hadn’t really developed the tough skin, so to speak, of not paying attention to what people are saying about me. But luckily, my parents, especially my mom, kind of shielded me from that when I made the decision to come back home and do something else.

People are going to say what they want to say, but it was the greatest decision I ever could have made, and my path happened the way it was supposed to happen. And I ended up back where I belong and back in this basketball journey. But I needed to take that massive step in order to find who I was outside of basketball: Who was Elena the person? For so long I defined myself as Elena the basketball player and used that to shield me from other things in life. You can never just be one thing. And I realized the importance of ways to not burn out and to develop other interests off the court and to be multifaceted. So it was crucial for me to explore all that, especially at that point in my life.

You’ve talked about the influence of your older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf, and has cerebral palsy and autism, calling her the bravest person you know.

Yeah. I mean, she’s taught me more than any person in my life. And she can’t speak. So it really puts into perspective how much she’s able to communicate. I think the biggest thing for me is just seeing the things that doctors have said over the years about what she can’t do: She can’t do this, can’t do that. And then she blew [past] their expectations and did far more. At a young age they told my parents that she would never be able to lift her head, let alone walk, wouldn’t have the strength to do that. And she’s not only lifted her head, but she’s still walking. She’s just so strong, even after she’s had over 30 surgeries in her life. And a lot of times they would say, “Oh, it’s going to be a three-month recovery.” And in two weeks: Boom, she was back to her normal self. So it just has taught me a ton about not allowing self-pity and all those things to affect you from achieving what you truly can. That we’re way more capable than we even understand. A lot of times we get stuck on these expectations that are put on us. And I’ve learned from Lizzie to crush those barriers. And create your own path.

You’re now one of, I think it will be, 10 WNBA players ever with a signature shoe.

I think right now it’s only three active players with them right now: me, Stewie [Breanna Stewart] and, I believe, Candace Parker. So again, visibility and women’s sports, I think signature shoes are a huge part of that. And I’m hoping this just slams the door open for many players in the league. I feel like this is a big next step to show that these huge companies believe in us, are putting money behind it to develop these shoes, market these shoes, have them out there. And hopefully that gets other companies to come on board with the league and continue to pour in their investment. More brands are jumping on board and investing, though obviously more need to come. But I do think the league has grown tremendously and the visibility has been so much better. You see more of our games now on TV.

Why the WNBA’s first signature sneakers in 11 years mean so much

I even notice being out and about that way more people are noticing me and stopping me and asking about the Mystics. I’m like, “This is a great sign.” Because before I could be pretty incognito. My height gives me away here and there, but I just feel like there’s so many more people who know about our league and who are supporting and watching because it’s available.

You’ve talked about the fact that 50 percent of girls leave sports during puberty. How do you think about why that happens and what can be done to change it?

A large reason for it is just that helpless feeling of being, "Well, where is this going to take me? I don’t see professional sports. I don’t see the benefits of putting my time into this.” Another big reason is also period poverty. And not being able to have the access to products that they need in order to still be able to compete when they’re on their period. And then also a lack of women coaches out there, too. So I think there’s just a lot of different variables that go into it. So we have to pour into the grassroots programs that support young athletes. Because even if you don’t go on to be a professional athlete, sports develop people, develop their leadership skills, how to work with a team, how to be motivated and try to achieve a goal, or even how to deal with loss.

Speaking about the league and gender parity, you’ve said that men come up to you and just assume that they could beat you in basketball because you’re a woman. How often does it happen? And what’s your reaction?

It happens a decent amount; we’ll be in the airport or something, and it’ll be like, “Hey, you want to go one-on-one?” It’s just annoying. And it’s funny because the NBA guys respect our game so much, respect our level of play so much. So when you see a high school has-been come up to you like, “Yeah, I could beat you one-on-one.” It’s like, “All right, let’s not do this.” But it has lessened during my time in the league, and I’m hoping it’s because of opportunities to watch us and be like, “Yeah. No, I couldn’t beat her in one-on-one.” Or “I couldn’t stand a chance on that team.”

You’ve been vocal in urging the Biden administration to figure out a way to bring home fellow WNBA player Brittney Griner. How has her ordeal reverberated in the WNBA? And what is the thinking on how she’s been valued by the administration, and how much of that is a gender issue?

It’s just been heartbreaking to see this happen to such a sweet, incredible, caring, giving person. BG, if you meet her, she changes you because of how sweet and caring she is. The first thing she always asks me is, “How’s Lizzie?” For her to be going through this and for so long now, it’s hard to even wrap your head around it.

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I think the part that was really frustrating to us all amongst the league was knowing that the administration waited so long to meet with Brittney’s wife. Like, why did that have to take so long? That was concerning to me that if you can’t even take that meeting, what are you doing to get her home? As a collective, we’ve just been trying to do the most we can to continue to talk about Brittney, and to hopefully give her some hope that we are trying whatever we can do to get her home. But hopefully something will come about and she’ll finally come home and be with her family.

If you can point to one thing you’ve learned, advice to live by, what would you say?

I guess I would just say run your own race. I think sometimes we get caught up in what other people think we should be doing, or we get caught up in judgment or comparison of what others are doing. And the bottom line is, you have to just run your own race and do what’s best for you. And you’re the only person who can steer that. Guide that and know that.