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How Elena Delle Donne’s Year Away From Basketball Led To Her Becoming WNBA MVP

By Karen Rosen | May 12, 2016, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

Elena Delle Donne poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Even when Elena Delle Donne burned out on basketball and abruptly stopped playing, she never lost sight of her Olympic dream.

“I was hoping to be a beach volleyball player at that point in time,” said the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne, who took her hoops hiatus before starting college. “My whole focus shifted towards that. I played volleyball and had given up basketball for life — that’s what I thought.”

She changed her mind, of course. Delle Donne returned to basketball, enjoying a stellar collegiate career at the University of Delaware. Drafted by the Chicago Sky, she was the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2013 and the league MVP last season.

And now, with the start of the 2016 WNBA campaign Saturday, Delle Donne has another title: Olympian.

Last month, she was named to the 12-woman Team USA roster for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, which will be the first major international tournament for the 26-year-old.

“I’m glad,” Delle Donne said, “that I’m here for basketball. There’s no way I would have been here for volleyball.”

The United States is seeking a record sixth consecutive gold medal in women’s basketball going back to 1996, the year the WNBA started. Team USA is 58-3 in Olympic play on the women’s side and has a 41-game winning streak.

When Delle Donne was invited to join the pool of 25 Team USA finalists, “At first it was just really nerve-racking to be among such greatness,” she said. She asked herself, “What can I bring that’s going to make me stand out to the (committee) members who have to pick this team?”

Her nervousness quickly evaporated. “Basketball’s basketball,” Delle Donne said. “I know how to play the game and I’ve had these role models kind of just being in my ear, telling me what coach is looking for, what I need to do and always encouraging me, so that helped a lot.”

When she first came to camp, Delle Donne said she was passive, passing up open shots. Tamika Catchings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, told her, “Elena, you’re a shooter. If you’re open, shoot the ball. That’s what they want to see.”

“So it was really nice,” Delle Donne said, “to have someone like Catch to pull me aside and be like, ‘Be yourself.’”

That means being the player who last season scored a league-high 23.4 points a game — No. 5 all-time — and finished third in rebounding at 8.4 boards a game. She also shot an astounding 95 percent from the free-throw line, a WNBA record (207 of 218).

But Delle Donne said the most important thing she can bring to the court “is just being the best teammate I possibly can be, just being able to uplift everyone around you — seeing a teammate is down, patting them on the back and doing all the little things, all the intangibles that make a great teammate.”

Delle Donne started playing basketball when she was 4 years old, two years before the WNBA hit the ground running. Unlike some of her older teammates, she grew up knowing she could have a career playing in a professional league in the United States.

“All these incredible women before me were able to pave the way,” Delle Donne said, “and now I’m in that position where I want to grow the game as well and make it so the young girls coming up have an awesome league to be a part of and something to dream about.”

Looking back, however, Delle Donne wishes she had not focused on one sport at such a young age. In 2008, she was named the Naismith National High School Basketball Player of the Year and signed with the University of Connecticut and its esteemed coach Geno Auriemma.

Within 48 hours of arriving on campus, Delle Donne was gone, leaving in the middle of the night. She was burned out on basketball.

“I drove myself a little too much,” she said, “and there are things I didn’t need to do, like wake up at 5 a.m. and go running or lift before school, lift during free periods, practice and then do individual skills. So, I was constantly being a little crazy and overdoing it. I would have needed to tone it back and I think the best way would have been to not specialize at my sport so early.”

She was also homesick, which was an easy fix. Delle Donne enrolled at Delaware, close to her home in Wilmington, and played volleyball for a year.

“I put basketball away,” she said. “I didn’t touch a ball for over a year and after the volleyball season finished up, and I was able to watch a little bit of college basketball, I missed it. I decided I wanted to get back into it.”

But Delle Donne didn’t want anyone pressuring her. She didn’t even want anyone to know she missed basketball “because I needed to be the one to fall back in love with the game,” she said, “and be the one to make the ultimate decision that I’m going to get back into it and do this thing for life.”

Elena Delle Donne (R) competes in the WNBA Finals at the UIC Pavilion on Sept. 12, 2014 in Chicago.

Delle Donne kept her workouts hidden, sneaking into the gym around midnight. A new friend on the women’s basketball team — Meghan McLean, who is still her best friend — had the access code and was sworn to secrecy. Keeping lights at a minimum, Delle Donne shot around and played H-O-R-S-E.

“After a couple of those late-night sessions, I knew it was time to get back to it,” she said.

Her game had not deserted her. “Shockingly,” she said, it came back immediately. “It was kind of like riding a bike. I thought my shot would be pretty off, but it felt kind of good. So taking off a year might have been a good thing for me.”

Delle Donne played basketball the following season for the Blue Hens, leading them to the Sweet 16 her senior year.

Although that achievement is no match for Connecticut’s record of six NCAA championships since 2009, Delle Donne said she never reflects on what might have been if she had remained a Husky.

“I have absolutely no regrets,” she said. “The journey I’ve been on has been so special and so unique. I have always been driving the ship. That’s what’s most important to me is following your heart, knowing what’s right and following that ship, seeing where it takes you.”

And now it has taken her back to Auriemma, the Team USA coach who was also at the helm at the London 2012 Games.

“I’m thrilled to be playing for the greatest coach in the world and to get that opportunity again, for life to come full circle, is pretty crazy,” Delle Donne said. “I feel like I learn something new from him every single time I speak to him or in practice.”

She said there was no awkwardness between them, that they have always had a great rapport.

“He was really supportive of me and just amazing and always spoke really nicely of me when there were a lot of horrible things being said in the media,” Delle Donne said.

“When you tell a coach that you’ve committed to the school and they expect you to be there and he used a scholarship on me and then you leave, I would expect him to be really rude and upset about it. He always had great conversations with me, just trying to understand what was going on, trying to get through the burnout and just help me grow.

“I think he saw more than anything a confused teenager and wanted to help me, and that’s what’s really special.”

That same year in 2008, Delle Donne also had a physical setback that she hasn’t been able to shake. She contracted Lyme disease, suffering severe migraines and fevers. There is no cure for chronic Lyme disease, only management, and her last big flare-up forced her to miss some Sky games in 2014.

Delle Donne follows a health regimen, trying to eat gluten-free foods and getting full-body massages to make sure inflammation isn’t creeping in “because that’s where the muscle cramps and fatigue come in.”

“In a regular day, if I pour three hours into training, I have to pour four hours into my health,” said Delle Donne, who sometimes just has to take a nap to combat fatigue. “It’s become a second job to me. A lot of people go through various things and persevere. I feel very blessed to be in this role.”

Delle Donne said she’s been playing with Lyme disease for so long that she doesn’t even try to imagine what kind of player she could be without it. “I’ve been able to manage it,” she said, “and it’s something that’s so much a part of me at this point.”

Her dazzlingly accurate free-throw shooting is also ingrained in her, but in a good way.

Delle Donne said the secret is simply simplicity. “I try to limit my motion as much as I can, and when you limit that, not much can go wrong with the shot,” she said.

A coach convinced her to change her technique when she was heading into 8th grade. He told her she had to believe in him. “He said it was going to feel really awkward and really weird at first — and it was,” she said. “When he first changed it, I was air-balling, bricking, hardly making any, but I believed in him and was able to just kind of get the routine down and it ended up working really well for me.”

But before her shot started working, Delle Donne was frustrated. “I was getting so mad at him!” she said. “I’m like, ‘This doesn’t work. You have one more week for me to make a shot or I’m going back to the old way.’”

She never went back. And Delle Donne continues to move forward in her game and off the court.

“With age I’ve realized how important it is to be a well-rounded person,” she said. “I think when I was younger I only defined myself as ‘Elena the basketball player.’ And that’s where you run into problems.”

Delle Donne works with Special Olympics and special needs individuals in honor of her older sister Lizzie, who was born blind and deaf. The sisters are very close. She is also host to the De11e Donne Academy, a year-round basketball camp where she mentors and coaches girls ages 7-18.

Delle Donne’s No. 11 Chicago Sky jersey was the top seller in the WNBA last season.

“I try to acknowledge anyone I see, like, ‘Hey, you look good in that jersey,’” she said. “I don’t think it’s anything I’ll ever get used to, and I hope I don’t. I always want to be in awe of certain things like that and realize that this is not a job at all. I’m living a dream.”