Her hair is a little longer, her smile is a little broader and her competitive spirit is stronger than ever. For Washington Mystics All-Star Alana Beard, missing all of last season could have left her feeling discouraged. Instead, she said it changed her for the better.
"I've learned to just let go and know that I can only control certain things," Beard said. "For me, that's just working hard. Everything else will come together."
Beard missed all of last season with an Achilles' tendon injury and still is working her way back into game shape. For now, Beard participates in only one of the team's two-a-day practice sessions.
"It was hard being injured, but I accepted it when it happened," she said. "I knew there was no way, no how I would come back that year because I knew how long the process would take."
A four-time All-Star, Beard, 29, was a standout at Duke and drafted by the Mystics with the second overall pick in 2004. The 5-foot-11 shooting guard has averaged 16.2 points, 2.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds in her eight-year career.
"The first day back, I was beyond nervous, just getting back out here with everyone, but I thought my teammates did an unbelievable job of just making me feel comfortable," Beard said. "It was just like old times.
"It's been very rewarding [to be back]. For the past year, it's been a process and I'm sort of still going through that process. It's been a lot of fun to get back on the court with my teammates and to help us reach our goal. I'm not sitting on the sidelines anymore."
The goal of winning a championship, and not just making the playoffs, has been elusive for the Mystics. In the team's 13-year history, it has made the playoffs seven times, but only reached the conference finals once, in 2002, losing to the New York Liberty.
Last year, the team won the Eastern Conference with a 22-12 record, but was swept in the first round by the Atlanta Dream. The frustrated Beard could only watch.
But this year, Washington has a new coach and general manager, Trudi Lacey, a new style of play and looks forward to a different outcome now that Beard is back.
"She just has a presence about her. Alana has instincts that you just can't coach," said Lacey, who said Beard's return would provide an immediate impact.
"She's excited to be back on the floor, but I remind everybody it's been a year, so it may take her a little time," Lacey said. "Her timing is returning, and she's starting to look like her old self."
Thirteen-year veteran Chastity Melvin is excited to have Beard back and said it's her job to "make sure Alana stays patient."
Monique Currie can relate to what Beard went thought last year. Currie will miss this season with an ACL injury, but even from the sideline, said she can see how important Beard's return is.
"Alana is a great player and a great leader," Currie said.
Despite the frustration of her injury and the challenges of rehab, Beard said she stayed positive and believes she learned a lot about herself while being out.
"Was it hard? Yes," Beard said. "But at the same time, no, because I focused my mind on other things and started implementing other things into my life."
Showing the maturity and selflessness of a true leader, Beard refers to her lost season as a blessing.
"It gave me a chance to sit on the sideline every single game and every practice and watch other players like Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne develop into the players I knew they would be," Beard said. "Me being out, it didn't only help me, it helped our team."
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