As the U.S. team heads to Rio in pursuit of its sixth back-to-back gold, all eyes are on Elena Delle Donne.
By the time their daughter was standing two heads above her fellow kindergartners, Elena Delle Donne’s parents knew she was an unusual child, and were not terribly surprised when, aged ten, Elena joined a basketball team and led it to place third in the national championships. Recently voted Most Valuable Player of the Women’s National Basketball Association, Elena is currently poised to lead the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team to collect its sixth consecutive gold in Rio. “She is a once-in-a generation type of player,” says NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. “She’s a Steph Curry.”
In an unlikely twist for somebody with Marvel-comic physical gifts, Elena’s life has also been shaped by extreme physical disability. Her older sister, Elizabeth—or Lizzie, as everybody calls her—was born blind, deaf, and with cerebral palsy. Now 31, Lizzie can communicate only with a handful of signs, and people relate to her through touch and smell. (Elena and Lizzie’s mother, Joanie, has worn the same Chanel perfume all of Lizzie’s life so that her daughter will always know when she is near.) Lizzie has had more than 20 surgeries, most to try (unsuccessfully) to give her limited sight, as well as a successful ten-hour spinal operation at the age of eight, performed by former presidential hopeful Ben Carson.
The two sisters are extraordinarily close, often literally so. “We can’t text or Skype,” Elena says. “The only way to be with Lizzie is by physically being with her.” So while many female basketball players spend the off-season playing overseas, where salaries are lucrative, Elena divides her time between traveling with her team, the Chicago Sky, and her family’s home in the rolling green landscape of Wilmington, Delaware. She and her fiancée, Amanda Clifton, keep apartments in both Chicago and Wilmington. In order to spend as much time as possible with Lizzie, the superstar athlete works out not at a pro-athlete training complex but at the local sports center, building her core strength and running speed while her neighbors take Zumba classes and throw birthday parties for their children.
When I visit one recent morning, Elena, who has come from a hot-yoga class and lifting weights at the gym, arrives with her mother for lunch at a bustling restaurant nearby. Slightly tan, with her long blonde hair pulled back into a high ponytail, she looks as if she might have come from a run on Venice Beach rather than rural Delaware. Between bites of Cobb salad, Elena, who is six feet five and 26 years old, remembers her height being a difficult issue to manage as a child. “My mom always said, ‘It’s good. No one’s like you.’ But I wanted to be like everyone else,” she recalls. It wasn’t until junior high school, around the time University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered her a full basketball scholarship, that she accepted that her height was an advantage.
After lunch, mother and daughter retreat to the Delle Donnes’ 35-acre, multi-home property. Elena has a few free hours to hang out with her sister before she is due back at the athletic center, to coach a session for the De11e Donne Academy (her jersey number is eleven), clinics she and Clifton—who played college basketball—run for children ages seven through eighteen. After leading 30 girls through conditioning exercises and drills, Elena poses for selfies with the star-struck students, including one who brings along an oil painting she created of her idol.
Elena’s balancing act will come to a standstill this month so she can focus on securing a victory in Rio. “There’s going to be some tough competition—particularly from Australia, France, and Canada,” she says. Though she is concerned about Zika, “it will not stop me. I have been wanting to compete in the Olympics as long as I can remember.” Elena’s parents and her older brother, Gene, will join her in Brazil, as will Clifton. Her sister can’t travel, but when Elena needs an extra jolt of energy, she will rub the tattoo on her left ribs. It says: Lizzie.