36 Intriguing Delawareans • Elena Delle Donne

Basketball star

Professional basketball makes Elena Delle Donne famous. Her activities off the court make her intriguing.

The 28-year-old Washington Mystics player (and part of the gold-winning team at the 2016 Olympics and host of a basketball camp) is the global ambassador to the Special Olympics and the first national ambassador for the Lyme Research Alliance. Her new foundation focuses on special-needs people and Lyme disease. In November, she will marry Amanda Clifton, director of the De11e Donne Academy, in a give-back ceremony paid for by The Knot. And in her spare time, she works in wood.

Her dedication to special-needs people and to Lyme come from her family (her sister Lizzie was born blind and deaf) and herself (she’s been fighting Lyme since 2008). Lizzie “had an impact on my life … about not trying to hide disability,” she says. They communicate through touch, with a simplified system of hand-on-hand sign language conveying Lizzie’s most common desires.

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Family ties are very important to Delle Donne. She withdrew from the University of Connecticut in 2008, after just two days, and switched to the University of Delaware, back home. She’s putting down roots by buying a house in Washington, and her parents have a summer home in Annapolis.

For Special Olympics, she gives speeches and makes social media posts to encourage unified sports teams and “end the use of the R word” when referring to people with special needs.

She created her foundation “because a lot of care for Lyme disease isn’t covered by insurance.” 

As for her own condition related to Lyme, “I’m doing well,” she says. “I’m keeping up with my treatments and checking in on it every day in an open dialogue with my coaches.”

Her days typically start with gym and practice time. There’s also time with dogs Wrigley and Rasta and with Amanda. “We’re exploring D.C. in different ways.” And there’s creative time with wood.

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“I’m very into DIY,” she says. Building wooden furniture and accessories morphed into a side business after she posted a coffee table on her Instagram feed. The items are for sale on her website.

The new D.C. house, though, is not a fixer-upper. “I didn’t want to deal with that headache.”

She does have to deal with an ambitious wedding. “The wedding will be created with a highly reduced carbon footprint, making sustainable choices and keeping the environment in mind,” The Knot said when announcing that it would be paying for it all. “All food and floral arrangements will be seasonal and locally sourced whenever possible, and following the festivities, extra food will be donated to homeless shelters and all flowers will be given to local hospitals and nursing homes for others to enjoy.”

Instead of a gift registry, Delle Donne and Clifton have a registry for gifts to the foundation. And fans will vote on their honeymoon destination.

Delle Donne praises people around her, like her agent and her fiancé, who “make sure everything get done and [help me] keep my head on straight. In the end, my career is to play basketball to the best of my ability.”

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Delle Donne was a tall, well-coordinated second grader at Tower Hill when she started playing basketball for coach John Noonan, following in the footsteps (and shots) of her brother, Gene.

Early on, she devoted a lot of time to exercise and practice. “The work made her a prodigy. She signed her first autograph in fifth grade,” The Washington Post reported in a May feature, adding that “along the way, her passion morphed into an obligation to bear”—to constantly do even better.

Her WNBA bio lists numerous awards, including the 2015 league MVP, the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award (twice), All-Star starter (three times) and Gatorade Player of Year as a high schooler in Delaware (three times).

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