Stuck quarantining in her apartment hundreds of miles away from the WNBA bubble, Elena Delle Donne has not been a part of the action this season –– and is missing it more than ever.
Almost halfway through the regular season, the young Mystics team has struggled during their 2020 campaign without leaders like Delle Donne, who was unable to make the trek to Florida due to her battle with chronic Lyme disease.
The two-time WNBA MVP decided to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season because of the risk as an immunocompromised individual during the coronavirus pandemic. After the WNBA denied her medical opt-out, the Mystics agreed to pay her full salary while she continues to impact her team from afar.
“It’s really hard when you have to choose between your health or a paycheck,” Delle Donne said in an interview on Thursday with TIME’s Raisa Bruner. “I’m blessed enough to have an organization that decided to take care of me, but it’s a horrible decision to have to make. For me, I was grateful enough to make the decision to stay home and stay safe, but for those who can’t make that decision and have to go, it’s awful.”
However, Delle Donne’s work as a leader has not stopped even though she’s physically separated from her team. Players have reached out to her, and she regularly communicates with the team, in hopes of helping them work through their struggles in this shortened season.
She, as well as other players who chose to forgo the season as well like Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, have made themselves a regular part of the team dialogue, continually impacting their club even if they can’t provide on the court.
But according to Delle Donne, it’s been challenging, especially through the team’s losses.
“It’s really hard to watch them struggle through these losses and not be able to be there with them and compete with them,” Delle Donne said. “This is such a huge growing experience, especially for our young players, and it’s only going to make them better. But it’s like watching their siblings go out there and compete, and you can’t be there with them.”
At the same time, she’s used this period to better her own game and done what she can to settle into some training routine. Because of her Lyme disease, she has been strictly quarantining from the beginning of the pandemic but has high hopes for what she can do when life returns to normal.
“As an athlete, you have your goals,” Delle Donne said. “I am very regimented on my goals, and now with COVID there are just so many unknowns. I am certainly preparing for the Olympics for next year and my season for next year. I’ve had to start breaking it down to daily goals just to stay motivated. I’m at home. I’m used to training with a trainer. I’m used to training with my teammates, so at times I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Here we go again.’ It’s just me in a room with my weights or just me at a basketball court by myself. It’s just starting to feel monotonous to not be with people.”
But for Delle Donne, the hardest part is not the strict quarantines or the distance but rather missing out on the powerful activism the WNBA has showcased this season as they continue to be pioneers in sports to encourage social change and make the world a better, more inclusive place. Yet she continues to lead from afar, representing the league, and will be welcomed with open arms when she makes her return next season.
“There’s moments where they’re all wearing their Say Her Name shirts. and I’m like, ‘I want to be there. I want to be doing that too.’ But just knowing that at this point, I’m safe here, and I can do my best to impact my team and impact the league from afar and know that they are doing some incredible work and just being a fan of it and watching and continuing to support them.”