Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne is Back and Better Than Ever
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer of 2024.
When Elena Delle Donne got to the WNBA, she quickly learned that the support she’d always received in her home state of Delaware was something of an anomaly. “I was really shocked how other states and other places treat women’s sports compared to male sports,” Delle Donne said.
The forward-guard grew up in Wilmington, where her high school team would sell out games at the 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Center. She then went on to college at the University of Delaware, where the women’s basketball team regularly outdrew the men’s team. “It was that way because we were the better team. So I think Delaware certainly spoiled me.”
In 2013, Delle Donne moved away from Delaware; she was drafted as the second overall pick by the Chicago Sky. She was named the WNBA Rookie of the Year that season, and awarded the WNBA MVP in 2015. In 2016, she joined Team USA in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, where they won gold. The next year, Delle Donne voiced her desire to move closer to home, so that she could see her family more. She was traded to the Washington Mystics in the 2017 offseason.
Now that Delle Donne plays driving distance from home, she gets to go back a lot. But she still misses her favorite local Wilmington spots, like Grotto Pizza and Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop. She loves the Delaware beaches, too. But this summer, Delle Donne hardly had any time to tan. She’s coming off of three grueling years recovering from back surgeries and other injuries, and fighting to play her best basketball yet.
“I have done everything in my absolute power to get back to being on the court,” Delle Donne told NBC Sports. She opted out of the 2020 bubble season and said that during the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, which she missed while continuing recovery, she wasn’t sure she’d ever play again. “I was at a really tough place still with my back. I was in too much pain to go out to dinner with my wife and sit there and eat a meal.”
Thinking about the next Olympics wasn’t even on her radar. “At that point, I was just trying to feel okay again, to live a normal life, let alone go play basketball.”
Delle Donne has come a long way since then. She got back to the court in the 2022 season and in 2023 was a WNBA All Star. The WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday, and the Mystics have clinched a berth for the second straight season. They’ll take on the New York Liberty in the first round, with the Liberty likely looking for revenge after the Mystics denied them the No. 1 overall seed with a buzzer-beater victory at the close of the regular season.
Beyond 2023 league play, Delle Donne is already starting Olympic training camps with Team USA. “I go from winning a championship to then having the hardest injury of my career. And now I’m feeling good,” she said. “I’m back, I’m playing. So obviously the goal is Paris.”
Back in 2016, at Delle Donne’s first Olympics, she was relatively early in her career. “You think you’re gonna go to every single Olympics and you’re going to be healthy all the time and things are just going great,” she said, adding how inspiring it was to be around athletes from all over the world. Delle Donne knows what it takes to be part of the Olympic team, and right now, she’s focused on securing her spot. “I haven’t been able to compete with [USAB] for a really long time, and I just miss it. It’s the best basketball you can play with the greatest players.”
No matter where she’s playing, Delle Donne’s fans will no doubt be cheering her on. “I still have fans from Delaware who have watched me since I was in eighth grade,” she said. “It’s just such a loyal, incredible group of people.” As for her own personal recovery journey and the road that lies ahead, Delle Donne’s drive comes from basketball itself. “I’ve been able to stay motivated through it all because I love this game so much.”