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WNBA star Elena Delle Donne is using her voice and leading by example to inspire the next generation on and off the court.
Though she's been absent from competing as of late, having been in three games total this past season, Delle Donne, 32, is "super optimistic" about dominating her opponents again and has largely been focusing on her recovery from back surgery. "I am feeling really great," she tells PEOPLE, adding that physical therapy is helping her find "different ways to strengthen and just be ready for next season."
Despite her brief playing hiatus, Delle Donne's legacy has already been cemented as one of the league's greatest and most influential athletes. In September, the Washington Mystics forward was named as one of the 10 active players on the WNBA's prestigious "The W25" list, which selected the top 25 players in its 25-year history.
"It's just such an incredible honor because our league's been around for a good while now, and there's been some incredible players throughout the years. To be in the top 25 of all-time players is something I'm not even sure I've completely wrapped my head around," Delle Donne says.
Recently, the Olympic gold medalist wore her commemorative W25 jacket for the first time and showed off the special patch which only she has the glory of claiming. Delle Donne is the only WNBA player to be a member of the male-dominated 50-40-90 club for having a 50% field goal percentage, 40% three-point field goal percentage and 90% free throw percentage over the course of a regular season.
"In my playing career, there's things that have come and achievements that have come where it's just kind of like, 'All right, keep going, keep going.' You enjoy it for a little bit," she says. "But I guess when it's all said and done, hopefully, I'll have kids one day and I get to show them my awesome jacket and relish in some of the things that my team and myself have accomplished. I think that'll be a time where I really sit back and take this one in, but it's such an honor and it really does feel great."
It's clear Delle Donne is not done with her playing career yet. And her steadfastness of being a role model in sports has also extended off the court even more as of late.
The two-time WNBA MVP partnered with Always to encourage young women to continue excelling in sports as nearly half of girls will drop out during puberty.
"I was a little bit shocked when I heard the stat that nearly half of girls in the U.S. drop out of sports during puberty. That was pretty mind-blowing to me because sports teach young girls so much," Delle Donne says. "It's okay if you're not great at it or you don't plan to go do that in the pros. It's just so important that we have sports for young girls and we show them that although society hasn't always shown them the long-term value of them being in sports, [change is] coming. It is so key to keep them playing and to keep them active."
Recalling how youth sports "was so big" during her adolescence, Delle Donne says "sports are something that got me so ready for life and enabled me to learn so many skills, especially teamwork, being able to handle stress, meeting friends, and then probably most importantly, just confidence."
With strong conviction in her game, she became one of the sport's most revered shooters and a record-setter in her league. But the 6′ 5" star says her confidence got stronger with personal growth.
"I was super tall, if you can believe it, as a young girl. I struggled a lot with my height and just being different. And then through sports, I was able to see that being different and being unique is one of my greatest powers," she shares. "It helped me come into my body and have that confidence to be me and be proud of being me."
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Through sports, Delle Donne hopes young girls can find the same confidence, whether they choose to play professionally or not.
"I want to help them understand the value that playing sports can help, not just from the standpoint of being healthy, but all those non-athletic life skills that I talked about," she says. "That's what sports can do for you."
The WNBA has garnered a larger audience in the past couple of years, with more viewers than ever watching this year's Finals between the Phoenix Mercury and Delle Donne's former team, the Chicago Sky.
"Unless it's the Mystics I struggle to cheer for any team. But I am just enjoying the incredible basketball that we're seeing," she says.
"These games have just been awesome. It has just been so huge for our game and for women's sports in general. We know because we've been a part of this and fans who have been a part of it know how great our game is," Delle Donne continues. "But to finally see it on display, for others to see it, and to finally get the attention that it's long deserved, is something I'm so excited and proud of."