Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
Breanna Stewart realizes that having too many trophies counts as a first-world basketball problem, the kind that only the most dominant athletes must confront. Her solution: send most of the hardware to her parent’s house. “It’s kind of insulting how we have them,” says her father, Brian. “They’re downstairs in the storage room. Huge pile.”
Stewart is not the richest, most endorsed or best-known athlete. But it’s hard to find anyone who wins as much as she does. Even calling her a “winner” fails to capture the frequency and magnitude of her triumphs.
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., Stewart won two high school state championships at Cicero-North High. At UConn, her teams lost just five games in four seasons, and she won four national titles—and four Most Outstanding Player trophies at the Final Four. The honors have piled up: National Gatorade Player of the Year, Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, McDonald’s All-American. In 2016 she was the WNBA rookie of the year and won an Olympic gold medal. She’s a two-time All-Star.
In September alone, Stewart won league MVP honors, led the Storm to the WNBA championship, nabbed Finals MVP honors, then went straight to the FIBA World Cup, where she boosted the U.S. to victory—winning MVP for that team, too. Then she went to Kursk, Russia, to win some more. So no, it doesn’t get old, Stewart says, all the winning and the trophies and the accolades. Still, her father admits that, “honestly, it’s a little embarrassing at times.”
Beats the alternative, of course, a can’t-win-them-all reality Stewart confronted in her first two WNBA seasons. Looking back, those years helped Stewart truly appreciate the success she’s had on the court. “I’m back in the position I want to be in,” she says. “I want to be the best player in the league, but also the best player in the world.”
Stewart crams her 6’4″ frame into a booth at Etta’s, a seafood restaurant in Pike Place Market, while on a quick trip home from Russia. She’s trying to explain what it felt like to lose 18 games in her rookie season and 19 more the next. She hadn’t dropped that many games, combined, over the course of the rest of her basketball career. “Definitely hard to get used to,” she says.
Most UConn stars experience something similar. They’re groomed to believe that they should (and must!) win every game. A loss, however, rare, meant they should expect “hell” in practice, according to Stewart. She still remembers the four defeats from her freshman season (2012–13), three of those to Notre Dame, and the gloom that accompanied each loss. “The one that annoys me,” she says, all these years later, “is Baylor.” She didn’t score that night. Her coach, Geno Auriemma, “probably told me it was my fault we lost,” she says, adding that she agreed with him.
Compared to those first two WNBA seasons, though? Not even close. Sure, as a rookie Stewart set the league record for defensive rebounds in a single year with 277, while leading all first-year players in points (18.3), rebounds (9.3) and blocks (1.9). Still, the Storm lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In her second year in the WNBA, Stewart started the year injured, after spraining the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee while starring for Shanghai in the women’s Chinese Basketball Association. She wanted to atone for all those losses her rookie year. But when the season started, she wasn’t healed. On top of that, she learned the hardest way that many of the best players in the league—Elena Delle Donne, Maya Moore, Candace Parker—also played the forward position. Every night, it seemed, she squared off against another All-Star.
At times that season, Stewart would text her best friend, former George Mason point guard Corey Edwards, after losses. These were paragraph-long texts, lamenting all that went wrong. “She doesn’t take losing well,” he says. “It was hard on her. But it was even harder on her friends.” The Storm again made another early playoff exit.
Stewart returned to Shanghai after the 2017 season, beginning the stretch that flipped the switch back to dominant for her. Edwards got different kinds of text messages from Stewart that year. Stuff like: I’m going to prepare myself for the best year I’ve ever had and This is going to be an MVP year.
To that end, she started working with Susan Borchardt, a sports performance consultant recommended to Stewart by veteran Storm guard and fellow UConn alum Sue Bird. The point guard told Stewart that Borchardt could help Stewart go from “great to the best.”
Stewart has always been skinny. In high school, teammates referred to her as Bean for her lanky frame. She went to Borchardt to make sure her body could withstand the pounding that comes with playing year-round basketball. Borchardt’s workouts combine Pilates, yoga, steam rooms, saunas, hot and cold tubs and lifting weights. These routines were tailored specifically for Stewart, who also overhauled her diet, removing all chips, cookies and candy from her kitchen cabinets and cutting out junk food except for her favorite guilty pleasure, donuts. When Edwards visited, he was forced to bring his own snacks. The hope was that Stewart would emerge as the WNBA version of Kevin Durant—long, lean, angular and versatile.
Which is pretty much what happened. But that wasn’t only because of Stewart’s improved health and new training regimen and the Storm’s reconfigured roster, which was made over by Seattle’s new coach, Dan Hughes. The biggest change for Stewart was actually her decision to reveal in an article for The Players Tribune that she had suffered sexual abuse as a young child. It wasn’t easy, but she saw the impact of the #MeToo movement—how far it was spreading, how many women had lived through what she had lived through—and she wanted to help. “That was the first step for me to really be like, I’m doing the things I want,” she says.
She conducted the interview for the piece while in China, re-living those terrible events out loud for the first time, then spending the rest of the day in bed. She had to read it again for a segment she filmed for ESPN’s E:60. The response was both overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive.
What Stewart didn’t expect was that baring her soul would have such a positive impact on her basketball her career. Combined with her new strength and flexibility, becoming more comfortable with herself and letting go of the burdens she had been carrying allowed Stewart to play more freely. That made her the best version of herself. “When I opened up my life, I could just play basketball,” she says, making the transformation seem so simple. Of course, it wasn’t.
For the 2018 season, the Storm finished 26–8. Stewart averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. She had career highs in points, steals (1.4 per game) and shooting percentage (52.9). The rise, the wins, the growing trophy collection—none of that struck Stewart as coincidental. Sometimes, after explosive quarters or big wins, Bird would say, simply, “That’s the Pilates.” She was right. The work was translating.
Unburdened off the court, Stewart played that way on it. “The #MeToo thing was huge for her,” her father says. “It inspired her to be confident in who she was and that carried into everything.” He cites an example from this month as proof. On Stewart’s most recent trip back to Russia, her father called her just before takeoff. “Be careful,” Brian told her, “and text me when you get there.”
“Dad, I think we’re kind of past all that,” she responded, and he laughed.
“See, it’s not just basketball, it’s everything,” he says.
As Stewart moves into next season, she wants to continue reaping the benefits of the changes she’s made in her life. She’s still unassuming, but given her platform and her successes, she wants to continue her social activism work and take on a more significant role in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in the WNBA. “People on the outside think we’re fighting for millions and millions in salary increases. We’re not,” she says. “But why is the NBA percentage of revenues at 50 and ours is 25? Why do we have to go overseas to make so much more money? Why am I going to be the reigning MVP and still on a rookie contract?”
Stewart would like to repeat, too, of course, but she need look no further than Bird to see that’s not as easy it might sound. Bird won WNBA titles in 2004, 2010 and then last season, with long gaps in between. Stewart, who Bird refers to affectionately as “Stewie,” wants to stay there and become the first back-to-back MVP since Cynthia Cooper nabbed that honor in 1997 and ’98. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t want to repeat,” she says.
There’s also no reason to doubt that Stewart will win again. History says it’s not only possible, but likely.