While warming up before a game early this season, Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird approached Las Vegas Aces counterpart Kelsey Plum with a message about their shared performance enhancement specialist, Susan King Borchardt.
"Dang, I never should have given you Susan's number. I should have waited until I retired," Bird said.
"Thank God that I connected with Susan before you retired," Plum countered, "because we're sick of you winning it."
Although the message between the two friends was light-hearted -- "I was laughing with her," Plum recalled -- there was truth behind it. Bird announced earlier this month that this will be her final season after two decades in the WNBA, but she said she wouldn't have enjoyed a late-career renaissance that has seen her continue to be one of the league's best point guards into her 40s had she not started working with King Borchardt.
Several players throughout the WNBA have reaped similar rewards. Plum calls working with King Borchardt -- who trains a handful of other players around the league and has worked with the Storm as well as the U.S. women's national team -- "a big advantage."
"Everyone knows her now," Bird's Seattle teammate Jewell Loyd said, "but she was our secret weapon for sure."
From playing to coaching performance
Before King Borchardt trained WNBA players, she was briefly one of them. As Susan King, she was a top recruit in the class of 2001, beating rival point guard Lindsay Whalen as Minnesota's Miss Basketball their senior year of high school and landing at Stanford.
To excel at 5-foot-6, King Borchardt always emphasized her own fitness in a disciplined way, even writing out training plans as young as 5 years old. But the idea of helping others didn't take root until after King Borchardt suffered ACL tears in each of her first two years at Stanford, where she was a starter from Day 1 of her freshman season.
Two important things happened during King Borchardt's rehab. In the training room, she met Cardinal men's basketball player Curtis Borchardt, a first-round pick by the Utah Jazz in 2002. They married the following year.
Second, former Stanford great Jennifer Azzi referred King Borchardt to renowned physical therapist Lisa Giannone. Rehabbing with Giannone alongside professional athletes like Olympic decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, King Borchardt discovered "such a different perspective from what I was doing at Stanford." Giannone became an important mentor.
Although she returned to earn All-Pac-10 honorable mentions as a redshirt junior and senior and enjoyed a three-game stint with her hometown Minnesota Lynx in 2005, King Borchardt realized her future was off the court. After being waived by Minnesota, King Borchardt joined her husband as his playing career took him to Spain, serving as assistant coach and strength and conditioning specialist for Curtis' club.
By 2013, after a year back at Stanford where Curtis finished his degree and King Borchardt served as the Cardinal's intercollegiate athletic development specialist, working closely with coach Tara VanDerveer and the women's basketball program during Nneka Ogwumike's senior season, the couple and their three -- soon to be four -- young children moved to the Seattle area, where Curtis grew up.
That presented an opportunity with the Storm, who hired King Borchardt as sports performance coach, a seasonal role without travel that gave her time with her family. Bird, who spent the 2013 WNBA season rehabbing after knee surgery, knew she was working with someone special.
"I didn't come in until a month into the season," Bird said. "So it was kind of like, 'Hey, this new person. She's going to help me do this knee rehab.' That was literally like the summer of death. She's so good that it's going to be hard, but she whipped me into shape, got me back from that knee surgery, which was a really long rehab process.
"From that moment, I was like, 'Oh, this is legit.' I knew very quickly that we were lucky that she was in some ways maybe overqualified for the position. Sometimes the WNBA doesn't have the money to pay talent in certain roles. At some point, you've got to pick and choose things, and at times a role like the strength coach just might not have the budget."
Forward Alysha Clark, then in her second season with the Storm, said King Borchardt was a "game-changer."
"Helping us understand the different dynamics of what playing sports looks like, what taking care of your body looks like," Clark said. "Before everyone got on the sleep train, she was into that and was explaining that to our coaching staff and everyone alike. Just super ahead of the trends."
'Here's the keys to my life'
After the 2014 season, when she averaged a career-low 4.0 assists per game and shot 39% from the field, Bird -- then age 34 -- made a critical decision to entrust herself to King Borchardt.
"It was that offseason where I basically was, 'Here's the keys to my life. I'll do whatever you say,'" Bird said. "I could feel myself plateauing and I didn't want to finish that way.
" ... Whatever she told me to do, I did. I didn't question it. I've been with her ever since."
King Borchardt began reorienting Bird's workouts around maximizing fitness and strength while minimizing the load on her left knee, an issue dating to a 1998 ACL tear during Bird's freshman year at UConn. King Borchardt designed workouts using swimming, spin classes and Pilates to save the tread on Bird's tires, as she offers by way of analogy, for a full season's worth of games.
To optimize Bird's diet with an eye toward anti-inflammatory foods that would keep her fueled and ready, King Borchardt connected her with Dr. Susan Kleiner, a nutrition expert in the Seattle area who set up a meal plan for Bird that King Borchardt helped execute.
"That's the beauty of Susan," Bird explained. "Susan has all the strengths, but if there's ever an area where somebody else is the expert, she will gladly incorporate them and their knowledge into what she's doing."
Sleep had always been a focus for Bird, but she also began wearing a Whoop monitor and gave King Borchardt access to the data, leading to the occasional reminder text that a nap would be helpful.
Having improved her body composition and strengthened her hips to relieve pressure on her knees, Bird began turning back the clock on her performance. The 12.8 points per game she averaged in 2016 were her most in five years. And while her scoring took a back seat with the development of Loyd and Breanna Stewart, Seattle's No. 1 picks in back-to-back years, Bird's 7.1 APG in 2018 were a career high at age 37 as she helped the Storm to a third title. A fourth followed in 2020 when Bird was weeks away from turning 40.
From Bird's perspective, that wouldn't have been possible without King Borchardt. "The last couple of years I've been on, jokingly, the one-year plan," she said. "And after each one of those years, I write her a text, I'm like, 'Thanks so much for this last year. You're keeping me going.'
"After the 2016 Olympics, I didn't know there was going to be a 2020. After the 2016 Olympics, I was like, 'You got me to my last Olympics, thank you so much.' There's been those moments because for me, you never know. I can without a doubt say I would not have made it to that Olympics without Susan. That's 2016. So you fast-forward six years, it's been a good run."
It's no surprise that when Bird first began to consider returning for a 19th WNBA season after contemplating retirement last fall, her first move was to text King Borchardt about continuing their workouts.
Growing the circle
Over time, King Borchardt's client list expanded via word of mouth, even as she moved to the Portland area and could no longer be involved with the Storm on a day-to-day basis. Stewart, who joined the Storm after King Borchardt's move, signed on ahead of her third season in the WNBA. Hoping to take the next step in her career, Stewart asked Bird what advice she would have for her 23-year-old self. Bird's answer was simple: "Hire Susan."
"I remember Sue saying, 'If you want to help bring yourself from good to great or just a little bit more,' it's going to be the way that I take care of my body," Stewart said.
She credits working with King Borchardt for helping her break through in her third WNBA season, winning MVP and leading the Storm to a title. Their work together was perhaps put to a greater test the following year, when Stewart suffered an Achilles rupture during the EuroLeague Final Four and had to endure one of the most challenging rehabs for a basketball player. Stewart returned as good as she was before the injury, winning Finals MVP a second time as Seattle won the championship again in 2020.
"It is a big advantage. I feel like for me, when I step out there I know I'm the best conditioned athlete in this game." Kelsey Plum, on training with Susan King Borchardt
Those comebacks are most rewarding to King Borchardt, having experienced injuries herself. In her role as a performance/recovery coach for USA Basketball leading up to last year's Olympics, King Borchardt got to watch Stewart return with the U.S. national team in an exhibition game at UConn, Stewart's alma mater, before capping the journey by winning gold in Tokyo.
"Being there for the part where it's like, 'OK, we're going to get out of this,' and formulating that plan and seeing it through and seeing them to the other side, that to me is really fulfilling," King Borchardt said. "When you watch someone like Stewie and know there have been some downs, but you see her dig in, find that resiliency, get to the other side and finally feel like herself again."
By that point, Plum was following Stewart's path. She'd started working with King Borchardt just prior to her own Achilles rupture while playing 3x3 basketball in June 2020. The indirect referral from Bird came via her UConn teammate Morgan Valley, who had worked with Plum as an assistant coach at the University of Washington.
"I remember Morgan called me after the 2019 season and she was like, 'You need to work with Susan,'" Plum recalled. "I knew Sue worked with her but I didn't really know the capacity or how much it really made a difference."
With Stewart's rehab process as a benchmark, Plum managed to return to playing at the highest level of her career. She averaged a career-high 14.8 PPG in 2021, winning the Sixth Player Award while also winning an Olympic gold medal with the USA 3x team, and has pushed that to 20.1 PPG and 5.9 APG as a full-time starter so far in 2022. Plum was voted to her first All-Star Game last week as a starter.
'A level of respect'
Over time, King Borchardt's business, The Athlete Blueprint -- which also includes Curtis Borchardt, a physical therapist and current Storm sports performance coach Emily Blurton -- has added other WNBA stars like Ogwumike, Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury and Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings, as well as Bird's fiancée, soccer star Megan Rapinoe. The Beaverton, Oregon-based company now works with more than 10 women's basketball players along with two soccer players and a concert pianist -- and has a waiting list.
The connection between King Borchardt's WNBA clients is part support group and part mutual admiration.
"Listen, she does it with a smile, but she's a killer," Bird said. "Don't let the bubbly smile and the blond hair fool you. She is a killer. There is definitely a shared language, a shared experience amongst us. We joke about it."
Added Plum: "I see them warming up and I'm like, 'Oh, that's a Susan warm-up', which is a joke because it's not like a warm-up, it's like a workout. We'll bond over the brutalness of the conditioning or the lifts. Susan is famous for absurd amounts of extra conditioning and Pilates and strength stuff."
For Bird, ice baths are a constant battle. In Stewart's case, it's grueling workouts on an assault bike during rehab, which she refers to as "the death bike" because of the way it mirrors the conditioning needed to play in a game and King Borchardt's ability to push players beyond their perceived limits.
Ultimately, WNBA players know that they're pushing themselves for a reason.
"We find jokes in these little things that we're doing," Stewart said, "but it's really a level of respect to one another for what we're going through and for what Susan has done for us."
That care shines through in the way King Borchardt tailors her workouts for each client.
"The way we look at it is Sue is so different from Stewie is so different from Kelsey Plum is so different from Nneka," King Borchardt said. "Because of their history, their bodies, their age. All those things necessitate that individualization."
Stewart's workouts focus more on calf strength to help take pressure off her Achilles. And though swimming is a key part of Bird's training regimen, Stewart has successfully avoided it. Loyd appreciates that as a former player, King Borchardt understands what it takes to compete at a high level and "can relate personally and emotionally to what you feel on game days." Bird also highlighted King Borchardt's flexibility to adjust schedules on the fly when players have a flight delay or are unable to do a planned workout.
While the workouts can vary, the way players describe their strong connection with King Borchardt is remarkably similar.
"You know those little bubbles at the top of your iPhone?," Bird said. "It's Megan and Susan. Those are the two people I text the most in my life. And honestly, it's actually more Susan because I live with Megan. We don't text that much. I'm in contact with Susan every day and like I said, it's literally been like that since 2014."
"She's the person that I talk to most consistently besides my wife," Stewart echoed. "Just all the time."
In many cases, those conversations go beyond basketball and conditioning.
"I talk to her about life situations," Plum said. "I talk to her as much as anyone in terms of my life and my day-to-day. I stay at her house in the offseason. I really feel like I'm part of the family. We're stuck for life. Obviously we work together, but I really love her as a person and enjoy being around her, so it's really been tremendous for me."
Perhaps, from Bird's perspective, a little too tremendous.
"She was like, 'I'm so mad. I should've waited,'" Plum said. "It's funny because it is a big advantage. I feel like for me, when I step out there, I know I'm the best conditioned athlete in this game. That matters."