‘Essentially the most priceless particular person in Duke Athletics’: Meet Director of Pictures Natalie LeDonne

‘Essentially the most priceless particular person in Duke Athletics’: Meet Director of Pictures Natalie LeDonne

As Duke males’s tennis kinds their pre-game huddle towards Wake Forest in late March, a seemingly further staff member walks into Ambler Stadium with the same sense of objective — besides this staff member has lengthy darkish hair and a Nikon D5 digicam as a substitute of a racket.    

Director of Athletics Pictures Natalie LeDonne launches herself into the chaos of screaming Duke athletes.    

“Blue! Devils! Blue! Devils! Go Duke on three! One, two, three!”   

She’s tucked between junior Faris Khan and first-year Pedro Rodenas, shut sufficient to snap the power whereas positioned proper outdoors their circle. Holding a “respectful distance” is overrated. She’s immersed.   

“Go Duke!”   

Poised to shoot, Nat appears extra able to catch the primary level than the gamers are to attain it. Should you look away for a second, she’s gone, teleported to a different court docket. She’s perched on a bench, squatting behind a recycling bin or crouched subsequent to a vivid crimson Wilson tennis bag so huge it virtually looks like she might match into it. Eyes aren’t usually on her, however her eyes are on everybody and all the pieces. She doesn’t miss a second.      

Effectively, perhaps a couple of. Nat seems to be behind her shoulder in delicate disappointment as sophomore Connor Krug and first-year Teddy Truwit win their first doubles set towards the Demon Deacons — even one of the best of sports activities photographers can’t catch all of it.  

In 2021, Nat was featured within the U.S. Lacrosse Journal after she captured the successful photographs and saves of Duke males versus Syracuse and Carolina every week prior. Her images have been revealed on ESPNW, Swimming World Journal and the ACC Community.    

“She has a approach of issues that’s so totally different from anyone else,” mentioned Meagan Arce, Duke’s director of sports activities advertising. “She will get probably the most distinctive photographs.”  

“I believe Nat’s probably the most priceless particular person within the Duke Athletics division,” mentioned Reagan Lunn, govt director of athletics pictures. “She’s at all times been extremely dependable and reliable.”      

When Nat and I hopped on our first name, she smiled sheepishly. “Once I noticed you wished to put in writing a profile on me, I believed you had emailed the unsuitable particular person.”    

Nat has been a workers photographer at Duke Athletics for nearly six years. Her path to sports activities pictures wasn’t clear at first. 

“When Nat began and got here to {photograph} Duke soccer practices, I informed her to take photos of the quarterback,” Lunn mentioned. “And he or she mentioned, ‘What’s a quarterback?’”    

These days, Nat’s finger is on the heartbeat of all 27 Duke groups. Two hours in the past, it was girls’s tennis. Tomorrow, girls’s lacrosse. Proper now, her lens is concentrated on the tensing jaw of the boys’s tennis head coach. 

‘Essentially the most priceless particular person in Duke Athletics’: Meet Director of Pictures Natalie LeDonne

Photograph by Jaylynn Nash

It virtually appeared pure for Nat to finish up on a school campus. Nat and her mother Patricia moved round Virginia whereas Pat labored in school admissions, settling at Roanoke School. Her aunts, uncles and grandparents all labored in training, from kindergarten academics to biology professors.    

Pat adopted Nat from rural China when she was 9 months previous. 

“Once I picked her up from the orphanage, they’d nicknamed her Yi Feng Zhang, which interprets to Mighty Phoenix,” mentioned Pat, who raised Nat as a single mother. “She was sick, cussed, and feisty, however she was a fighter.”   

The 2 took to one another rapidly, and it’s been Pat and Nat ever since.

After second grade, Nat transferred to Holy Cross Catholic Regional Faculty in Lynchburg, Va. The household began a convention of buying sneakers, the one approach Nat might present her id in a college uniform. Neon orange Nikes, to be actual.     

“I believe I in all probability have like 17 or 18 pairs now,” Nat mentioned, laughing. Her present favorites are a pair of Air Max 270s.     

Regardless of an uncharacteristic dislike for watching skilled sports activities — “It’s solely attention-grabbing if I do know the gamers,” she mentioned — Nat grew up enjoying volleyball, basketball and soccer. Sports activities adopted her to Lynchburg School, the place she took up pictures within the athletics division. In her sophomore 12 months, she gained a summer season internship with the Minnesota Zoo.

“I left her at a reptile coach’s home. The place was stuffed with aquariums, snakes, and hawks consuming mice on the dresser,” Pat mentioned. “It was in all probability one of many hardest issues I did as a mother, however among the best issues for her.”     

The following summer season, Nat interned on the North Carolina Zoo. Absolutely intending to enter zoo pictures, a freelancing alternative at a Virginia Tech soccer recreation upended her plans.

Metallica’s Enter Sandman boomed over the loudspeakers. College students jumped to the beat, waving orange pom poms wildly. The power was addictive. Nat was hooked.   

Senior 12 months spring introduced Lunn to Lynchburg’s campus, the place a short connection and many likes dropped by Nat on Lunn’s instagram led to Nat’s first job at Duke — taking pictures soccer and basketball video games. She made the two-and-a-half-hour commute to Durham two to 3 instances every week.

“Nat’s at all times been a risk-taker in some ways,” Pat mentioned. 

The lengthy drives in her 2003 Honda CRV and spending Thanksgiving and Christmas freelancing proved worthwhile. Nat graduated in 2018 from Lynchburg with a level in communications and artwork, and that very August she was working full-time at Duke.

We deliberate to fulfill in her workplace the day earlier than the Wake Forest tennis match. As she sat down within the outsized swivel chair behind her desk, she admitted that the images of the Labrador and the memorabilia on the cabinets didn’t belong to her — it was technically Lunn’s workplace that they shared. 

My supply to maneuver outdoors was met with a sigh of reduction and, “Sure, please! I’m attempting to work on my tan!”      

She stretched herself throughout two chairs, toes up, soaking within the solar. On her wrist was a neon orange watch. At instances, I discovered myself feeling extra interviewed than the opposite approach round. Nat is engaged on a tattoo sleeve of all 50 states on her proper arm — her final one was the Kansas state flower — however someway the eye turned to a corgi sticker on my telephone case.  

“Do you have a corgi?” she requested excitedly. My reply was barely out when she began inquiring in regards to the different stickers. “What does this one say …”     

As we chatted about Duke Athletics and I rattled off mates on totally different groups, Nat’s face lit up. “Oh my gosh, Ellie on tennis! She’s the sweetest!” 

Hardly ever might I carry up a reputation that she didn’t acknowledge. “Alayna? I helped her together with her Italian homework! Or tried to, no less than,” she mentioned with a small snigger at her dyslexia and ADD. 

That is what she’s good at. 

“Within the studio, Nat makes the scholar athletes she works with really feel so snug,” mentioned Madison Olmo, a producer/editor for Blue Satan Community and buddy of Nat. “She brings out their personalities past the stoic athletics images that you simply usually see.”

Her function because the observer as a substitute of the noticed comes from an innate sincerity and curiosity, a real need to study extra about her topics. 

“She refers back to the athletes as ‘her athletes,’” mentioned Liv Warren, Nat’s girlfriend. “She tries to attach with every one in all them.” 

Nat would by no means admit it, however she’s a campus superstar amongst Duke Athletics. Each athlete is aware of the tattooed, Luke Combs-loving photographer with an affinity for puns, and each Duke worker is aware of of her timeless loyalty and meticulous work ethic.     

“Nat’s a unicorn,” Lunn mentioned. He’s proper. 

Editor’s Observe: Christina Ferrari is co-captain of the Duke fencing staff.