Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — A pair of angel wings, inked. A permanent reminder, stitched into the skin, pass the surface, bleeding deeper, and deeper.
For one first-time Olympian, these angel wings symbolize strength, courage, perseverance. And at the core, perspective.
Yes, for Chicago Sky forward/guard, Elena Delle Donne, the ink-soaked encryption remains etched on her skin, in her heart.
But before the angel wings tattoo, and well before Delle Donne would be a college standout for the University of Delaware who ranks fifth overall for most points scored (3,039) in the NCAA, she’d have to walk away before she could really return.
The genetic by-product of her father, Ernest, standing at 6’6” and a former Columbia basketball player, and mother, Joan, at 6’2,” Delle Donne was inherently engineered to be an athlete. Plain and simple.
And an athlete she would spend most of the early years morphing into.
Delle Donne worked vigorously with her father and coaches on the mechanics, while older brother, Gene, and friends, would kindle her competitive edge. A one-two punch destined to yield greatness.
And when the offer letter from UCONN legend Coach Geno Auriemma was delivered, it was Delle Donne’ stamp of approval that all her hard work had paid off.
The early morning wake-up calls, the extra practices, lifting sessions. Delle Donne’s “to do” list disproportional delusion of what needed to be done.
However, when college women’s basketball great, like Auriemma, offers you the chance to play alongside undoubtedly the best in the game, cue Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi, you go, no questions asked.
And the fresh-faced high school phenom did just that … for all of 48 hours.
Delle Donne cracked. The weight of her whole world, basketball, crumbling beside her.
The reason: a strong case of lack of self.
Delle Donne who has publicly come out, looks back now, heading into her fourth Olympic games, and pays homage to that girl.
In an interview for Yahoo Sports, she explained that lesson learned came over time.
“With age, I’ve realized how important it is to be a more balanced person. When I was younger, I defined myself only as Elena, the basketball player. That’s where you run into problems.”
Those problems, would find Delle Donne back in her home state and enrolled at the University of Delaware, confused.
She would dabble in volleyball her freshmen year, while whispers spread through the athletic department that the greatest basketball recruit in the country was now a student on campus, but not playing basketball.
The reality was clear to Delawares women’s basketball coach, Tina Martin, that Delle Donne needed to step away from the game, if she was ever going to return.
“This was an 18-year-old kid who was really struggling, and I didn’t want her to feel that pressure from me,” Martin said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “You could just see she was distraught. She looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.”
The weight: The abnormal growth spurt in her adolescence that found her better suited to compete amongst the boys on the blacktop than the girls, college scholarship offers as early as seventh grade, playing for one of the best college coaches of all-time alongside those whose games she had admired from afar in Moore and Taurasi, and the darkest pit of emptiness she felt when she arrived on campus in UCONN; location exact, but completely lost.
And in her search of self, Delle Donne, knew exactly where to start, her family…angel wings tattoo.
Trivia: If not a basketball player, what career would Delle Donne pursue?
Answer: A special education teacher.
The reason being is Delle Donne’s oldest sister, Lizzie, was born blind and deaf, and has cerebral palsy and autism. But more notably, is Delle Donne’s role model and inspiration.
Lizzie’s disabilities have inevitably had their challenges, but without her, Delle Donne may never have returned to basketball.
Angel wings tattoo. A pair of wings that Delle Donne has carved into her skin, an emblem to represent not the struggles Delle Donne has faced, but the ones her sister has.
“[The tattoo] keeps me grounded,” said Delle Donne, “and anytime I’m going through a struggle, it’s a reminder that anything I’m going through is nothing compared to what my sister has been through. It helps me keep my perspective.”
A lesson that would take Delle Donne through a journey of self-discovery. One that would find her back on the hardwood under the lights of the Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware, playing for Martin and the Blue Hens. Basketball back in hand.
Location exact again, but this time, Delle Donne was not lost, she was exactly where she was supposed to be, she was home.
“My head was clear,” quoted Delle Donne in an ESPN W article. “I was just shooting, not really focusing that much on my shot, just really feeling it again and feeling the ball. I just really had missed it. I realized I wanted to play again.”
“And I wanted to play here.”
With clarity restored, Delle Donne would go on to lead the Blue Hens to 104-32 overall record, the 2013 Sweet Sixteen, and be drafted No. 2 overall to the Chicago Sky in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
And now, apart of the 2016 Women’s National Team.
In her first appearance under the international lights, a nation, the world watched.
In her 23 minutes off the bench, Delle Donne went 3-6 overall and 2-3 from beyond the arc for 11 points and a huge Team USA beat down against Senegal (121-56).
But Delle Donne, like most of the Team USA, know there’s a target on their back, coming in as the reigning gold medalist champions five years running.
“It’s very tough,” said Delle Donne in an Olympic Press Conference. “It’s always a challenge, no matter what team we are coming up against. They are always going to give us their best shot.”
And Serbia proved to be Team USA’s first test of the summer games Wednesday, and while Coach Auriemma’s women would end up finishing the night with a 26-point deficit, 110-84, they were challenged.
Delle Donne in particular, who had only two points on the evening and found herself in foul trouble, was limited to only 12 minutes of play.
And with four games left on the road to claiming their sixth consecutive gold medal, Delle Donne will continue to define herself, not just as a basketball player, but so much more.
“I’m honored to wear that USA across my chest and know what it means,” said Delle Donne, “what it means to represent the history of women’s basketball and what these incredible women have done before us. Now, it’s time for us to pave our own path.”
And like any path, it will be textured with obstacles, uncertainties, and at times it will feel as if all direction is lost, and no one knows this better than Delle Donne. But in those moments she’ll look to her angel wings tattoo.