August 4, 2021 

Elena Delle Donne returns to practice for the Washington Mystics

'It's been progress'

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Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne smiles on the bench during a game against the Atlanta Dream on June 17, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

It’s no secret that Elena Delle Donne’s recovery from three herniated discs in her back has been uniquely challenging. Since her injury during the 2019 WNBA Finals, the Washington Mystics star and two-time WNBA MVP has undergone two surgeries, had to learn how to run and walk in ways that put less pressure on her back and seen her timeline for playing in a game postponed from the start of this season to after six games to “indefinite.”

On Monday, however, there was reason to celebrate, as Mystics head coach Mike Thibault revealed that Delle Donne had begun practicing with the team—including participating in some contact drills and live three-on-three and five-on-five play.

“I wouldn’t say we’re pushing [her] all out yet, but [she’s] been on the court,” Thibault said. “… Today, she was able to do some live action. And that’s a great first step for us. She did a little bit in the smaller group [workouts] last week. And we’ll see. I mean, she feels optimistic about it. Trainers, doctors feel optimistic, but it’s kind of one day at a time right now. But it’s been progress.”

This represents a major milestone for Delle Donne, as Thibault has said multiple times this season that she cannot play in a game before practicing with her teammates five-on-five. She did not do that before the Olympic break, sticking mostly to individual workouts.

Delle Donne (center, in blue) focuses before the opening tip during a game against the Seattle Storm on Aug. 14, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

At times over the past 22 months, Delle Donne’s rehab process has been demoralizing and painful. She didn’t get as much relief as she had hoped from her first surgery in January 2020, and the herniation returned in September, requiring a second surgery. In addition to the herniated discs, she also developed stenosis, a shrinkage of the spaces within the spine that can cause pain, numbness and muscle weakness and has prematurely ended several professional athletes’ careers.

Shortly after Delle Donne’s second surgery in December 2020, her wife Amanda asked her whether the WNBA championship she won in 2019 was worth the pain and surgeries. Delle Donne replied, “It’s funny. After the first surgery, I said yes. If this is an ongoing, lifelong struggle, I can’t say yes anymore.”

More recently, Delle Donne felt frustrated, according to Thibault, as the WNBA season tipped off and she was not particularly close to a return. She regrouped and was in “a good place” mentally by mid-June, but her aggravation was evident again last month in an interview with The Washington Post.

“From when I wake up and have my head on the pillow to when I put my head on my pillow and go to sleep, I’m doing literally everything I possibly can to get back and to do my best to play this season. It’s been really tough,” Delle Donne said. “I’m sure others are frustrated that I’m not out there, like the fans and all, but there’s no one more frustrated than myself.

“And I’m just trying my best to find peace in my day—but also know that I am giving literally everything I possibly have to get back out there. … I am trusting all these hours that I put in daily will help me to get through this and to get over the hump and be where I need to be.”

On July 10, just before the Mystics scattered for the break, Thibault said that he hoped Delle Donne would be able to participate in “a fair amount” of the practices when the team regrouped this week. “Elena’s been feeling better,” he said. “We’ll see how it translates once she starts getting physical contact.”

The first sign that she might meet that goal came last weekend, when Delle Donne appeared in an Instagram story from teammate Natasha Cloud showing eight Mystics players flexing after a workout. “They said extra conditioning,” Cloud wrote in her caption.

Delle Donne (back row, second from left) is pictured with her teammates after a workout on July 31, 2021. (Screenshot from Natasha Cloud’s Instagram story)

Still, Thibault said he had to “kind of hold [his] breath and see where she is” when the team returned to practice. He indicated that Delle Donne seemed to have progressed as he had hoped, but he and the medical staff would see how Delle Donne’s body responds to these workouts and make adjustments as needed.

Even without taking the court this season, Delle Donne has been a consistent presence for the Mystics, providing leadership and tactical advice at practices and home games. Now, her teammates are excited to see her return to live action and bring that presence onto the court.

“It’s been so much fun seeing Elena and how she’s moving,” guard Sydney Wiese said on Monday. “[We’re] trying to be mindful of taking our time with her and being mindful to ask how she’s feeling and to make sure that she’s listening to her body. But it’s been a while since we’ve seen her out on the court. So I’m really happy for her because I know she’s been working really hard … and I know that she’s happy to have progress to be able to be on the court again.”

It’s still too soon to say when Delle Donne might return or how effective she might be—but that’s almost beside the point. In what has been a marathon recovery from a potential career-ending injury, Delle Donne has passed a crucial mile marker down the stretch.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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