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Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne wants to help keep young girls in sports

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Elena Delle Donne knows the impact sports can have on a girl's life.

Taller than most of her peers and struggling with her sexuality at a young age, Delle Donne wasn't comfortable in her own skin. She was embarrassed by the things that made her different and didn't have role models to show her that what she was experiencing was normal.

Playing sports helped Delle Donne realize the power she had as a teenage girl, and she's doing everything she can to help today's youth realize that as well.

"I can't even imagine where I would be if I didn't have sports to help me come into my power and come into my confidence and learn just so many life skills that have taken me into adulthood," Delle Donne told USA Today. "It doesn't even matter that I'm a professional athlete because sports did far more for me in the life aspect of things."

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Elena Delle Donne has played in the WNBA since 2013 when she was named Rookie of the Year. She has taken the 2020 and 2021 seasons off for personal reasons after winning the 2019 WNBA Championship with the Washington Mystics.
Elena Delle Donne has played in the WNBA since 2013 when she was named Rookie of the Year. She has taken the 2020 and 2021 seasons off for personal reasons after winning the 2019 WNBA Championship with the Washington Mystics.

The former WNBA Rookie of the Year and two-time MVP recently partnered with Always and Dick's Sporting Goods to work on campaigns focused on keeping young girls involved in sports. Delle Donne also serves on Gatorade's Women's Advisory Board, aimed at addressing barriers contributing to the decline of female participation in sports.

In 2017, Gatorade's "Girls in Sports" study revealed that girls drop out of sports at 1.5 times the rate boys do by the time they're 14. More than half of all teenage girls stop playing sports by 17.

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There are four main reasons girls drop out of sports, according to a 2015 report from The Women's Sports Foundation. The leading cause? Girls don't see a future for themselves in athletics.

"Oh my goodness, the visibility is crucial," Delle Donne said. "It's something that we're always talking about. I think a big reason for girls dropping out of sport is that they often probably feel that society doesn't see long-term value of her continuing to play."

Women's sports account for less than 6% of televised sports coverage, according to a study by the University of Southern California. Though the number has been on the rise in recent years, it's still startlingly low considering the success and popularity of the WNBA and the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team.

Combating drop-out rates of girls in sports starts with increasing visibility both on television and social media so girls can see what the future holds. It's also important to show what girls are achieving in sports at a young age. Delle Donne said the recent coverage 14-year-old basketball prodigy Zaila Avant-Garde received following her win at the Scripps National Spelling Bee made her "so happy."

"It's so important, especially for young girls who can look and be like, 'Hey, that can be me. That's literally my peer,'" she said. "So, to be seeing the change in just my lifetime has been humongous. It's been massive to see the young women come in and use their voices and their platforms in a way that can inspire so many others."

A former Olympic gold medalist herself, Delle Donne sees the Tokyo 2020 as a prime opportunity for young girls to witness female athletes in action. She said inspiration can come from athletes in any sport regardless of which ones young girls play themselves.

United States' Brittney Griner, left, and Elena Delle Donne, right, celebrate with their gold medals after their win in a women's basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
United States' Brittney Griner, left, and Elena Delle Donne, right, celebrate with their gold medals after their win in a women's basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

"I would say watch all the sports, even the ones that you don't participate in because growing up I was most inspired by the gymnastics and swimming, actually," Delle Donne said. "I think you can watch all different sports and be inspired and connect with these incredible athletes in so many different ways so I wouldn't say just to hone in on your favorite sport watch it all and you will be inspired."

The Olympics begin July 23, and the USA Basketball Women's National Team plays its first game July 27.

Contact Emily Leiker at eleiker@usatoday.com or on Twitter @emleiker

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elena Delle Donne working to keep young girls in sports