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Breanna Stewart Finds New Perspective Atop the World

The WNBA’s best player (ever?) isn’t satisfied with just MVP trophies and championships. After a career-threatening and life-altering injury, Stewie wants more. Which is why she’s continuing her pursuit of history, whether it’s through basketball, sneakers, or her newfound voice.

Jaya Nicely

Dozens of young girl hoopers logged on to their computers, hoping to virtually meet their idol. Usually they’d be lining a tunnel in Seattle, watching Breanna Stewart as she runs onto the court. No matter. The girls were just excited to see her on their screens. Watch her. Maybe even talk to her. The girls were wearing muscle tanks, shorts. They looked ready to compete.

They looked like her.

Stewart started setting up video calls with young girls’ teams across the country last spring, during the height of quarantine, hoping to inspire the next generation of players while gyms were still closed. She wanted to tell them how to challenge themselves (she has to make 100 3s before she leaves the gym, 10 in a row at each spot). And she wanted to tell them about the voice in her head. The one that pushes her, the one that chases perfection.

I have to be the best. I have to be the best.

Some athletes might have lost a bit of that drive after going through what Stewart has endured. She won two WNBA championships with the Seattle Storm, one last season and one in 2018. She miraculously rebounded from a devastating Achilles tendon tear to win the 2020 WNBA Finals MVP nearly 18 months later, along with a 2021 EuroLeague championship and tournament MVP. And yet, the 26-year-old Stewart still is convinced that she has not reached her peak. No title, no accolade, is ever enough.

“I still feel there’s another level I can get to,” Stewart says.

If she doesn’t shoot 50-40-90, the golden standard she aspires to percentage-wise for field goals, 3s, and free throws, she views it as an off night. If her trainers ask her to take a day off, she feels she might lose some of her edge.

I have to be the best. I have to be the best.

“I’ve seen her make plays that I’ve never seen a woman make before,” says Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Famer who was her coach at UConn. “I saw Cheryl Miller in her prime. I saw Nancy Lieberman. Lisa Leslie. You name ’em. I saw all the best players.

“I’ve never seen anybody that dominates games—and dominates big games—the way Stewie does.”

With wizard-like ballhandling skills and sharpshooter range, the 6-foot-4 forward with a 7-1 wingspan bends defenses to her will. Turnaround jumpers, tip dunks. Stepbacks and spin moves. She weaves wherever she wants, posts up whenever she wants. She is always on and yet looks like she’s merely warming up. People think what she does is effortless, because she looks so fluid. She looks so patient. The only thing she is intimidated by is not measuring up to her own expectations for herself. And the older she gets, the more that standard rises. Gnaws at her.

Stewart is the best women’s player in the world. She could be the best of all time. Some part of her deep down knows that. But she continues to work as if she isn’t close. “She has no offseason,” says her trainer Susan King Borchardt, director of the Athlete Blueprint. “She is always all in.”

But on the video call with the young girls, Stewart, who goes by “Stewie,” had a different message. “Remember to enjoy the moment,” she told them. “Appreciate this moment.”

She was talking to them, but she was also talking to herself. A newer version of herself. A more introspective version of herself. She has dominated for so long, always with her head down in pursuit of the next achievement. Four NCAA titles. Four NCAA tournament Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards. A feat no man or woman has ever accomplished. But after battling the Achilles injury, one that could have prematurely ended her career, she realizes now, more than ever, that her purpose is bigger than winning or being the best. She’s trying to make it easier for the next generation of girls to follow in her steps. She wants them to feel seen. Valued. Invested in.

She wants them to be able to have options she didn’t have while she was growing up, such as walking into a shoe store and seeing many women’s basketball sneakers. Stewart, who now has an entire closet just for her sneakers, always lamented that there were only men’s basketball sneakers available to her, rather than any signature modeled exclusively after women’s players.

But those days are coming to an end. On Wednesday, Stewart will be announcing that she’s leaving Nike after five years for Puma, where she will be creating her own signature basketball sneaker. It will be the first original women’s product made from scratch in more than a decade, dating back to Candace Parker’s signature TS Ace Commander in 2010.

Some other recent players have had player exclusives, such as Maya Moore’s Air Jordan XI, Nike’s special-edition LeBron 16 for Diana Taurasi, and a Nike Kyrie Irving Low 4 “Keep Sue Fresh” for Sue Bird. Sheryl Swoopes’s 1996 Nike Air Swoopes was the predecessor.

Stewart’s shoe, however, will be all her own making. Stewart will be creating the design, colors, messaging. She’s brainstorming ideas: “Should it be called The Stewies?! Should it be eco-friendly?!” She wants boys and men to wear them, too. “Basketball has no gender.”

The WNBA is undoubtedly reaching a mainstream audience right now in ways it hadn’t before. It’s more popular than ever, and has more visibility than ever, more nationally televised games. Stewart hopes that this momentum spills over into the sneaker industry. “It’s past time to reject the lie that there isn’t demand, or that women don’t sell shoes,” says her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman.

Stewart, too, is hoping that this deal will pave the way for other companies to invest in other women players. To not hesitate or second-guess whether a women’s basketball sneaker can work. “Where others saw a risk, Puma took advantage of it,” she says. “Women’s basketball players deserve to have signature shoes.

“We’re going to be helping move the needle forward for women in sports and women’s basketball.”

Seattle Storm v Los Angeles Sparks
Breanna Stewart drives during a game in the WNBA bubble in September 2020
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“You see your career flash before your eyes,” she says. That was Stewart’s first thought while lying on the floor, in Russia, playing for the club Dynamo Kursk, grimacing after rupturing her Achilles.

What if I never play again?

She had just come off a handoff for a one-dribble pull-up. She rose up, and then remembers something happening to her leg, something pulling her down. She stayed on the ground for a few moments. Part of her already knew she had ruptured her Achilles, part of her held on to a sliver of hope:

I hope my ankle is broken. Please let it be my ankle.

She was unable to feel her foot once she finally stood up, a sensation she still can’t fully describe. She was in shock. And the fact that the injury occurred while overseas felt even more cruel, as women’s players typically have to play in other countries during the offseasons to make more money. “I was at the best point of my career. I was at my highest,” says Stewart, who was coming off winning the 2018 WNBA MVP award. “And in a split second, I was at my lowest.”

It’s been over a year since Stewart was cleared to play again. She often thinks about all that she endured. How painful the injury was, and how much stronger the adversity has made her. How much more gratitude she feels. How young she felt then, how much older she feels now. How many doubts she had.

What if I’m not the same player I was?

What if … What if … What if …

The doubts overwhelmed her. She tried to block them out during rehab. Her leg exercises were grueling: picking up little medicine balls with her feet. Sliding a credit card underneath her heel. Her focus had shifted from Can I win a EuroLeague title? to Can I lift my heel off the floor?

What if I can’t jump the same, move the same?

She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t stand on two feet in the shower. Her mother, Heather Stewart, had to run a bath for her, help her ease into the tub, and wash her hair for her. It would take Stewart three months to be able to shower by herself again.

“I’m like, how am I supposed to go and try and win another WNBA title? Go and try and get buckets on people?” she says.

Devastation boiled into anger. Then anger cooled into resentment. She wondered why this had to happen to her. Why she had to get hurt. And why now? She was in the prime of her career, she’d just had the best year of her life, and then this? It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t going to make sense. But she continued to ask, WHY? Again and again and again.

Marta Xargay, her fiancée, who was recently waived by the Phoenix Mercury, was there for her at her lowest moments, trying to tell her to trust that everything would be OK. Trust that she would get through this. But every day felt like pushing against an impossible standard. Day after day, Stewart worked out on a rogue bike. She called it the Death Bike. The bike simulated a suicide sprint on the court. She’d usually be out of breath. She hated the Death Bike. It was galling to see how far away she was from the shape she had been in. The threat of not getting back to that place haunted her. The threat of not getting back at all gutted her.

“It’s an honest fear,” Borchardt says. “You don’t always come back from” an Achilles injury.

One afternoon, Stewart pedaled harder and harder on the bike, but her energy quickly dissipated. Tears welled up in her eyes. She tried to shield her face, but she couldn’t stop the tears. She had held things in for too long.

“OK, off the bike,” Borchardt said. “Let’s go in the hallway.”

It had been a few months since the injury, since she had bottled up her emotions. Tried to push past them. Dominate them. But in this moment, Stewart finally let herself break down. Feel her emotions. She missed winning. She missed competing. She missed … basketball. Ever since she was in fifth grade, she had dribbled the ball around her block in Syracuse, New York, as her dad always advised her to. She’d write her goals down on handwritten sheets, posting them around her bedroom to hold herself accountable.

“You have to let it out,” Borchardt said to her in the hallway. “It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to not be OK.”

It’s OK to not always feel like … the Best. Stewart has had a target on her back since she was an eighth-grader playing varsity. She was used to people watching her every movement, judging whether she would live up to the hype. She could never not measure up. Especially as she kept raising the bar for herself. Winning every title, every MVP. People began to see her as superhuman.

But she wasn’t.

She isn’t.

And in this moment, she was deeply frightened. Deeply frustrated. “This really sucks,” Stewart told Borchardt. “It just really sucks.”

“I know. It does suck,” Borchardt said. “But you’re going to use this to get you stronger. You’re not going to let this get in your way. You can have a pity party, you can feel these feelings.”

“Now,” she said, “how are you going to harness them?”

Syracuse v UConn
Stewart celebrates with teammates and Auriemma after winning the 2016 NCAA national championship with UConn
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

First Stewart had to accept that fear was there, and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. She had to look at her fear. Stare it down. Know that she would have to keep staring it down, somehow conquering it, again and again. When her physical therapist asked her to stand up for the first time while bearing weight, she paused, scared to proceed.

It was new, being intimate with fear. Letting it in instead of shutting it out. Stewart always felt powerful on the court. Able to bend defenses to her will. Dictate the tempo. Score in a flurry. She always felt as if she had control of a game that was, essentially, uncontrollable. And now she didn’t feel any of that. Not even a little bit of that. “My deepest fear was not being able to be back,” Stewart says, “just thinking about—there was so much more that I still wanted to do, in basketball, in life.”

“I didn’t want my story to end that way,” she says.

Fear wasn’t something she’d ever really felt while playing basketball. She’s always been so sure of what she could do, of what she was going to do. Her first day at UConn, freshman year, she told Coach Auriemma: “I came to UConn to win four national championships.”

Auriemma looked at her in disbelief. He couldn’t believe how casually, how matter-of-factly, she had said it. “She scared the hell out of me,” he says. “She’s either delusional, arrogant, or self-absorbed.” He soon realized she wasn’t any of those things. She just possessed a different kind of drive. A drive that didn’t hope to accomplish things—a drive that expected to accomplish things.

So that day, she kept looking at him, not offering clarification, as if to say: “Yeah, I meant what I said. Why wouldn’t I win four national championships?”

And eventually, she did win four of them. And she kept winning after that. Domestically, globally. She makes the extraordinary look routine: Stewie wins another ring.

“I don’t doubt that she thinks, in her mind,” Auriemma says, “that, ‘I may play bad at times. I may not be as good as I can be at times, but we’re playing in a big game and we have to win it? I’m going to play great. And we’re going to win that game.’”

But that confidence ebbed when she ruptured her Achilles. She had never been so uncertain before. The court always has been where she’s always felt like herself. But this was a version of herself that she didn’t recognize. The person who was sure she would win back-to-back-to-back-to-back titles now wasn’t even sure whether she could play again.

I have to be the best, I have to be the best.

That demanding voice kept pushing her in rehab. One afternoon, Corey Edwards, her best friend since high school, who had comforted her throughout her rehab process, pulled her aside.

“You’re not going to be the same Stewie as you were before,” Edwards told her. “You have to work three times harder to be better than you were before.”

Something clicked. She realized she had to stop trying to get her old self back. She had to accept that her body, her career, her life, had changed. She had to figure out how to be a smarter player, a more mature player.

It was terrifying. And liberating.

United States v Connecticut
Stewart brings the ball up the court in a January 2020 Team USA exhibition against her alma mater in her first game back since injuring her Achilles
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The first time back in live action, playing for Team USA in an exhibition game against her alma mater, UConn, she felt like she was in a fog. It was January 27, 2020, a date she’d had circled for months. She was so excited, especially after she drained her first 3. And then she couldn’t get into a rhythm after that. She couldn’t make a shot. She was late on rotations. Everything just felt so … fast. She had to be patient. She had to trust that her body would remember what to do at some point. It had been nine months, after all.

She then went back to Russia, got more reps, only for the world to then shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The WNBA season was delayed. That ended up being a blessing in disguise for Stewart, because it gave her more time to let her Achilles heal.

When the season resumed, she brought the Death Bike to the WNBA bubble in Florida. She still hated that bike. But it reminded her of how much work she still had to do. She drew inspiration from Kevin Durant, who had also recovered from the injury, and who she identified with in terms of loving basketball. And when the season started, she was not only as good—as great—as she had been, but somehow even better.

She was posting up more. Her ballhandling had improved during rehab. Her jumping, her running, her athleticism, it was all there. Fluid, untainted. She could drive to the basket at will. Pull up whenever she chose. She wasn’t thinking about her Achilles—she was just doing. Being.

“She makes it look easy,” says Xargay, her fiancée. “But playing at that level, it’s super hard. Not only physically, but mentally. It’s hard.

Stewart was dominant in the regular season, averaging 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. The Storm couldn’t be stopped throughout the playoffs, going 6-0. Alongside a stacked roster of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and a handful of veterans, Stewart scored 26 points in a 92-59 rout of the Aces in Game 3 to take home the championship, shooting an astounding 63 percent in the series and becoming the fifth player in WNBA history to win multiple Finals MVP awards. She felt more mentally tough than ever before. Knowing what it felt like to not have basketball had widened her perspective.

“Basketball is what I want to do for as long as I can, but basketball is not my entire life,” Stewart says. “Realizing that if I can’t play, I’m still going to be Stewie.

That means being as vocal as possible about gender and racial equality, something she had been striving for long before her injury. When she won the 2016 ESPYs Award for Best Female Athlete, as a WNBA rookie, she said in her acceptance speech: “I’m trying to understand why we, as professional female athletes, do not receive anywhere near the fame [as men]. This has to change,” she said. “Equality for all takes each of us making an effort.”

The following year, she wrote a #MeToo essay about being sexually abused as a young girl, wanting other girls who have suffered to feel less alone. She was scared to share her story, not knowing how people would react. But she felt that to genuinely be herself, to be the advocate she wants to be for other girls, she had to be vulnerable. Be present beyond the court.

“If you don’t, people are always going to see those walls,” Stewart says. “They’re always going to say, ‘I can only get this close to Stewie.’”

She knew everything she wanted was on the other side of vulnerability: acceptance, love, happiness. Maybe even peace. The more she has shared, the more open she feels. “I’m able to let people in now,” she says.

“Yeah, I’m a great basketball player and this and that and the other,” she says, “but all of the things I’ve been through, people are going through. Realizing they can be OK from the trauma they’ve experienced—I want to make that the real message.”

“It took me a while to find my voice and to come into my own,” she says. She was shy growing up. When she first started playing, her coaches kept screaming at her: “Get your arms up! Get your arms up!” She was so timid, so quiet, she would keep them at her sides on the court, almost trying to crawl into herself so no one would see her.

“She wasn’t sure. She was like, can I do this?” says Heather, her mom. “Then all of a sudden she starts blocking shots.”

“In college Stewie had no voice,” Auriemma says. She just played, said positive things about her teammates, her coaches, in interviews, and went home. But as she got older, she just felt she wanted to change. Speak up. “It was time,” she says. Time to be vulnerable for the next girl who picks up a ball. She thinks of them in whatever she does, imagining them watching her, judging her behavior.

Lately Stewart has learned about the power of listening, more than speaking. Showing up, but not taking up space, as a white woman in a league that is more than 80 percent people of color. “A lot of my teammates are Black women, and I’m realizing that they have different experiences than I have, and taking what I’m learning from them and hearing from them and making sure it reaches my circle,” she says. “My circle is different from theirs. My circle is more white than theirs. Making sure I’m continuing to check my friends and family: that’s how we’re continuing to push the needle forward and advocate equality for Black women and for Black Lives Matter.”

Stewart recently returned from Russia, and was supposed to take a few days off. Of course, she didn’t want to. She had traded in the Death Bike for a Peloton and wanted to start a new streak. Needed to start a new streak.

The 2021 WNBA season starts Friday. Stewart’s body feels better than ever, fully recovered from the Achilles injury. She switched to a pescatarian diet last year. And she is still insisting on scheduling as many workouts as humanly possible in a week: yoga, Pilates. Anything. Everything. She reads books at lightning speed, sometimes the same one two, three times, not for pleasure, but to try to gain an intellectual edge.

No one can convince Stewart to stop. But one person can reach her in a way others can’t: Xargay. When Stewart is around her, the intense parts of her soften. Stewart doesn’t have to think about chasing perfection, about being the best. She doesn’t have to be anything, really.

She can just … be.

“She is my person,” Stewart says. “It just makes it so much better to have someone be on the journey with you.”

She’s still working religiously on her game. Her injury provided her with perspective she may have not gained otherwise. But her life is expanding now. It’s not just basketball anymore. It’s not just being dominant anymore. It’s about holding all of the parts of her life together, giving her best to each.

“I’m working to start my life, you know? My life with someone,” Stewart says. “And I’m enjoying that.”

Two weekends ago, Stewart proposed to Xargay while on a hike in Phoenix. Stewart was nervous, discreetly carrying the ring box in her gym bag. “So nervous,” Stewart says. Of course, in typical Stewart fashion, she thought to herself: “I want this to be perfect! This has to be perfect.” She got down on one knee and she asked the question she had repeated over and over in her mind.

Xargay immediately said yes. She realized Stewart was her person, ironically, back when Stewart ruptured her Achilles. The injury brought them closer, causing them to spend more time together.

Sometimes seeing someone you kind of, maybe, really love suffer makes you realize what they mean to you and what you desperately want to mean to them. “We went through things we never thought we had to go through,” Xargay says. Whatever hard, awful moments they would endure from there on out, they wanted to go through them together.

Lately, Xargay has noticed a new lightness in Stewart. She is still focused, but calmer. Still driven but more joyful. The future is on her mind, but she is more present. More appreciative in the now. Stewart was running up court one recent afternoon, just the two of them, dribbling. Shooting. Still intense, but smiling. Loose.

“She’s actually enjoying this,” Xargay thought to herself. Of course, Stewart always has enjoyed herself. Always has felt at home on the court. But this was a different joy. A joy that can only come from having this ball, this hoop, this sense of security, taken. Stewart laughed as she settled into her workout.

Maybe Stewart was thinking of those little girls again. She knows they’re always watching.

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