How Alysha Clark is already preparing for 2022

On one good leg, Clark already making impact on Mystics

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Washington Mystics forward Alysha Clark (left) claps for her teammates in warmups before a game against the Phoenix Mercury on May 18, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

When the Washington Mystics signed two-time WNBA champion Alysha Clark on Feb. 1, they were elated about acquiring one of the league’s best two-way players. But the good vibes evaporated on a single play in a gym in north France on Mar. 10.

That day, playing for Lyon ASVEL Feminin in a French league game against Villeneuve D’Ascq, Clark caught the ball and saw an opportunity to drive to the basket. She jab-stepped to throw the defender off balance, but when she pushed off her right foot, she felt something that no professional athlete wants to feel: pop.

“The pain that followed was pretty excruciating,” Clark told The Next. “And … I couldn't put weight on my foot at all, so I knew at that point it was something.”

“Something” turned out to be a Lisfranc injury, surgery and the first season-ending injury of Clark’s career. As a result, Clark’s debut with the Mystics will be delayed until 2022.

Before this injury, the 33-year-old Clark had only had one surgery in her entire basketball career. That was back in 2010, after she played two straight seasons at Middle Tennessee State University with a torn ligament in her wrist—and led the nation in scoring in both years. That experience gave her a taste of the rehab process, but it didn’t prepare her for the challenge of using both a walking boot and crutches.

“It’s a sucky combo, that's for sure,” she said with a laugh.

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Her wrist injury also happened in the United States rather than an ocean away, which made it easier to get the medical care that she wanted. Clark said that Lyon wanted her to have surgery in France based on her contract, but she wasn’t comfortable with that.

“Teams want to be so contractual … and you're in a mindset of—excuse my French—but like, ‘I don't give a damn about contracts or what you're saying. I'm trying to get home; I'm trying to get this taken care of,’” she said.

While she was making plans to go home, she also went down an Internet rabbit hole reading about Lisfranc injuries, based on a hunch from an occupational therapist she knew. Such injuries damage the bones and/or ligaments in the midfoot and can be extremely serious. Recovery can take anywhere from several months to a year, and one 2019 study found that while 80% of athletes were able to return to play after a Lisfranc injury, just one in three were pain-free.

Clark had surgery on Apr. 2 in New York City, where she stayed for two weeks recovering with help from her sister and several friends. Although she isn’t required to be in Washington, DC, this season, she has chosen to rehab there in order to build relationships with her teammates ahead of the 2022 season.

Clark is steeling herself for at least a six-month recovery, though she received good news recently at her eight-week follow-up, when she got to ditch the crutches. In four weeks, she hopes to shed the walking boot as well, which will allow her to do set shooting and to drive a car. (She has used a car service for the last few months, which has led to some good-natured ribbing from teammate Natasha Cloud about how “famous” she is when her driver pulls up to the Mystics’ Entertainment and Sports Arena.)

The five-month mark will be another big milestone for Clark, as she will have the plate that her surgeon inserted in her foot removed and will hopefully be able to do more basketball activities. She said she feels “a little more rejuvenated” after getting clear timelines to work towards, and she is mostly pain-free already, minus “occasional throbs here and there” and general soreness from the rehab process.

At this point in her recovery, Clark spends two to two and a half hours per day doing rehab, which includes physical therapy to break up her scar tissue and increase her range of motion as well as strength work. “It's a lot of balance stuff, a lot of single-leg strengthening, a lot of glute work, a lot of hip work, a lot of core work,” Clark explained, “just really strengthening everything around [my foot].”

With the crutches gone, Clark is excited to do cardio for the first time since her injury on the exercise bike and in the pool. But she will still have to contend with some of her most hated exercises: blood flow restriction, which helps strengthen muscles without putting stress on injured soft tissues, and glute bridges and hamstring curls, which work the muscles in the butt and back of the legs.

“Any time we do blood flow restriction, it's the absolute worst,” she said. “And I have to do glute bridges and hamstring curls on the physio ball … [Today] I thought I was going to catch a cramp. [My trainer was] like, ‘You don't like these very much, do you?’ And I'm like, ‘No.’”

Although Clark does her rehab at a separate facility from the Mystics, she is a regular at practices, film sessions and home games. (She and teammate Elena Delle Donne, who is recovering from offseason back surgery, do not travel for road games.) She is constantly sharing her insights and mentoring younger teammates—paying forward the investment and encouragement that she received from veterans such as Tina Thompson, Tanisha Wright, Katie Smith and Sue Bird.

All eyes are on Clark (in floral shirt) as she speaks in the huddle during a game against the New York Liberty on May 21, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

“Just her being around every day is a good influence on a lot of our players,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said last week.

Clark’s words carry additional weight because of the trajectory of her career, from struggling to stick on a WNBA roster to being a starter on the Seattle Storm’s 2018 and 2020 championship teams. She made just nine 3-pointers as a rookie in 2012, but in both 2019 and 2020, she led the league in 3-point shooting percentage and was a WNBA All-Defensive Team selection.

“She's been through the whole experience as a player, from getting cut to winning a championship, so she's a voice that everybody gravitates to,” associate head coach Eric Thibault said.

Then-Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark locks in on her defensive matchup—Minnesota Lynx point guard Crystal Dangerfield—on September 6, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Thibault said that Clark’s championship experience and defensive acumen have been particularly helpful to the Mystics this season. He offered an example that checked both boxes: Before the Mystics played Phoenix on May 18, Clark suggested ways to defend Mercury star Diana Taurasi, based on her experience guarding Taurasi in an epic five-game series in the 2018 playoffs.

“Every team that we play, [Clark] has something for us to focus on,” third-year guard Kiara Leslie recently told the media. “Maybe, it might be a player or a certain play, but she always has something, some extra detail to give us to help us out with the game plan.”

According to forward Erica McCall, most WNBA players merely glance at the shot charts in the scouting report, but Clark always knows exactly where opposing players like to get their shots and how accurate they are from each spot.

“Her attention to detail is incredible, and so … when I'm coming off the court, [I] just listen to any advice that she gives me, what I can do better,” McCall said. “… She's an absolute genius when it comes to defense, and that's why she's been up [for] Defensive Player of the Year so many times, just because of the way that she reads the floor.”

“Even on the sideline in practice, you hear her talking all the time,” added second-year guard Stella Johnson. “And we'll watch film and she'll be like, ‘Can you stop that for a second? Guards, we need to talk about this.’ So she's very involved.”

Clark has talked frequently with her teammates about composure, steadiness and the mental aspects of the game, but the thing she has emphasized most is communication. That is especially important given that seven of the 12 players on the Mystics’ roster have been part of the organization for less than two full seasons. (Clark would make it eight, but her contract was suspended after her injury, so she is not on the active roster.)

Clark aims to use her voice to hold everyone accountable, from the team’s leading scorer in Tina Charles to its youngest player in Johnson. But fourth-year guard Ariel Atkins may get some extra investment. Atkins was named to the WNBA’s Second Team All-Defense in each of her first three seasons, but she is still hungry to improve defensively and asked Clark for help. Clark is working with the Mystics’ video staff to get clips of Atkins’ defense so the two players can study film together.

Just as important, Clark is eager to bond with her teammates off the court, too, particularly now that she is off crutches and can move around more easily. She is known around the league for her culinary skills and plans to invite teammates over for dinner this summer. And when the Mystics are on the road, she is planning some wine nights with Delle Donne—though she hopes that those will be short-lived as Delle Donne recovers from her injury.

“When we’re at the [home] games, we'll walk out [onto the court] and she's like, ‘Here we go,’” Clark said of Delle Donne. “And I’m like, ‘Listen, I need you to hurry up and get off the [injured] list and get back out there. … I’m trying to walk out here by myself.’”

Although Clark sounded mostly upbeat while speaking with The Next, there is no denying that that solo pregame walk can be mentally challenging—especially for a player whose season is definitely over. Clark alluded to several aspects of her recovery that have made her anxious or forced her to adjust. For example, she described herself as someone who is usually independent and in control, so relying on friends and family to take care of her after surgery or a driver to be on time felt unfamiliar.

There is also the financial anxiety that comes with being injured overseas, as the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement gives teams more leeway to suspend players’ contracts due to overseas injuries than if those same injuries occur in the WNBA. That is what happened with Clark, and she now has to wait until next year to earn her $183,000 salary with the Mystics.

The rehab process itself has been stressful, too. She has had to be patient, as her injury requires a lot of rest in order to heal. Seeing her calf muscles atrophy has been unwelcome: “I don’t do well with body changes,” Clark said. And there is the broader frustration of feeling like she is starting over, in some ways, with her body:

“A lot of people don’t understand that, for us as professional athletes, we’re so used to being able to do things that we want with our body … and then being put in a position where now doing something as simple as a squat, you have no control. And that’s really hard.

“So it’s been okay. It’s been a process, but you get through it, and at the end of the day, even though you're frustrated, you’re like, ‘Okay, today I was able to get a little bit lower. I did one more rep today.’ If you really focus on the good and the positives from it, it helps keep you in a better headspace.”

When Clark’s foot gave way in that fateful game in France, it was devastating both for her and for the Mystics. The Mystics are just 2-4 this season and could sorely use her skillset, as their defensive rating (103.3) and 3-point shooting percentage (31.6%) only ranked ninth out of 12 teams as of May 31. But they acquired Clark as much for her leadership as for her marksmanship, and she has clearly impacted the franchise without ever touching the court.

Just imagine, then, what she can do in 2022, if she has two good feet to go with the savvy and resilience that she has already displayed while hobbling around the Entertainment and Sports Arena.