WNBA basketball extraordinaire Elena Delle Donne, recently representing Team USA in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, traces her inspiration to her older sister, Lizzie. Lizzie is blind, deaf, autistic, and has Cerebral Palsy. But more importantly, Lizzie is Delle Donne’s role model, and Delle Donne credits Lizzie’s determination in life to have fueled her own, both on and off the basketball court. As a dominant WNBA player and 2016 Olympian, Delle Donne’s success is truly commendable, but her journey getting there was not easy, nor was it possible without Lizzie.
Before ever playing college basketball for the University of Delaware’s Blue Hens, the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, or for Team USA, Elena Delle Donne felt a looming anxiety about her budding basketball prowess while playing in high school. She felt her skill to be both a blessing and a curse – a blessing because she excelled in the sport she loved, a curse because pending scholarship offers could threaten to wedge Lizzie and her apart. In 2008, she turned down a basketball scholarship from the elite University of Connecticut and instead attended the University of Delaware because of its close proximity to home, which meant she could remain close to Lizzie. Formally, the reason cited for forfeiting the scholarship was ‘burnout.’ But interactions with Lizzie rely heavily on touch and smell, and Delle Donne knew all the technology in the world could not simulate those experiences if she moved away.
Delle Donne joined the Blue Hens her sophomore year in 2009, and after a dazzling collegiate career, joined the Chicago Sky in 2013. Even though it meant moving away for months out of the year, Delle Donne joined the WNBA because basketball was her true calling, and she realized it was not an either-or scenario between it and Lizzie. For example, while many players play overseas during the offseason, she remains in the US for Lizzie. Her reluctance for the game after high school can be explained in part by the shock that many fresh graduates experience as they enter college, but hers was compounded by her strong sense of family and relationship with Lizzie. Now as a professional player, Delle Donne is able to express her true appreciation of life and its challenges through her performances, and she is eager to credit Lizzie as her inspiration.
For her 20th birthday, Delle Donne got a tattoo of Lizzie’s name underneath angel wings to remind herself to keep perspective when struggling with a challenge, because whatever that challenge may be, it pales in comparison to those her sister Lizzie faces. Lizzie has undergone over dozens of surgeries related to her conditions, including one for spina bifida, and has frequented the hospital throughout her life. Lizzie is not able to exercise the independence that many of us enjoy in our daily routines, nor is she able to communicate with others in the traditional way.
But one lesson Lizzie has taught Delle Donne is that communication is much more than language. As Delle Donne herself has written, “She’s never said a word to me, but Lizzie has taught me more than anyone in my life.” The angel wings, tattooed on Delle Donne’s left torso underneath where her arm normally falls, represent Lizzie’s phenomenal perseverance through the challenges she has overcome and continues to face. Lizzie’s challenges are the wellspring of Delle Donne’s inspiration – inspiration that has manifested itself in the 2016 Olympic Games no less.
Despite being a top athlete, Delle Donne has Lyme Disease, which often leaves her exhausted and requires a daily regimen of pills. But a glance at those angel wings is the only reminder needed – even though Lyme Disease is a challenge, it is nothing compared to those Lizzie faces every day. In addition to breaking free-throw records on the court, Delle Donne is responsible for the Elena Delle Donne Charitable Foundation, is a global ambassador for the Special Olympics, and a spokesperson for the fight against Lyme Disease. When asked what she would be doing if not for a career in basketball, Delle Donne has said she would be a special education teacher. And even though she’s busy playing basketball, thanks to Lizzie, there are a lot of people being taught a thing or two about life and disability. In that regard, Delle Donne is both athlete and teacher, teaching all of us to appreciate a more virtuous outlook:
“And look at what makes [Lizzie] happy… Wind. That’s perspective.”