Built to Perfection

‘The most valuable person in Duke Athletics’: Meet Director of Photography Natalie LeDonne

As Duke men’s tennis forms their pre-video game huddle from Wake Forest in late March, a seemingly further staff member walks into Ambler Stadium with a equivalent perception of objective — besides this group member has extended dim hair and a Nikon D5 digital camera as an alternative of a racket.    

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

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

She’s tucked in between junior Faris Khan and initial-12 months Pedro Rodenas, near more than enough to snap the electrical power even though positioned suitable outside the house their circle. Keeping a “respectful distance” is overrated. She’s immersed.   

“Go Duke!”   

Poised to shoot, Nat appears far more completely ready to capture the initial issue than the players are to score it. If you look away for a second, she’s long gone, teleported to an additional court docket. She’s perched on a bench, squatting driving a recycling bin or crouched next to a bright pink Wilson tennis bag so huge it pretty much would seem like she could suit into it. Eyes are not usually on her, but her eyes are on every person and every thing. She doesn’t overlook a moment.      

Well, perhaps a couple. Nat seems guiding her shoulder in delicate disappointment as sophomore Connor Krug and 1st-year Teddy Truwit win their 1st doubles set against the Demon Deacons — even the greatest of athletics photographers simply cannot capture it all.  

In 2021, Nat was featured in the U.S. Lacrosse Journal immediately after she captured the profitable photographs and saves of Duke gentlemen versus Syracuse and Carolina a 7 days prior. Her photographs have been revealed on ESPNW, Swimming Earth Magazine and the ACC Network.    

“She has a way of hunting at items that’s so unique from any individual else,” stated Meagan Arce, Duke’s director of sports activities internet marketing. “She will get the most exceptional pictures.”  

“I consider Nat’s the most useful person in the Duke Athletics division,” mentioned Reagan Lunn, executive director of athletics images. “She’s normally been extremely trusted and reputable.”      

When Nat and I hopped on our to start with get in touch with, she smiled sheepishly. “When I noticed you wanted to create a profile on me, I considered you had emailed the completely wrong human being.”    

Nat has been a employees photographer at Duke Athletics for pretty much six many years. Her route to athletics images wasn’t apparent at first. 

“When Nat started and arrived to photograph Duke football practices, I informed her to choose pics of the quarterback,” Lunn stated. “And she mentioned, ‘What’s a quarterback?’”    

Currently, Nat’s finger is on the pulse of all 27 Duke groups. Two hours back, it was women’s tennis. Tomorrow, women’s lacrosse. Appropriate now, her lens is targeted on the tensing jaw of the men’s tennis head mentor. 

Photo by Jaylynn Nash

It practically seemed pure for Nat to finish up on a school campus. Nat and her mom Patricia moved about Virginia although Pat worked in university admissions, settling at Roanoke Faculty. Her aunts, uncles and grandparents all worked in education and learning, from kindergarten instructors to biology professors.    

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

“When I picked her up from the orphanage, they experienced nicknamed her Yi Feng Zhang, which interprets to Mighty Phoenix,” reported Pat, who elevated Nat as a one mom. “She was sick, stubborn, and feisty, but she was a fighter.”   

The two took to just about every other swiftly, and it is been Pat and Nat at any time considering the fact that.

Right after 2nd grade, Nat transferred to Holy Cross Catholic Regional University in Lynchburg, Va. The household started out a custom of searching for sneakers, the only way Nat could demonstrate her identification in a faculty uniform. Neon orange Nikes, to be correct.     

“I consider I almost certainly have like 17 or 18 pairs now,” Nat claimed, laughing. Her present favorites are a pair of Air Max 270s.     

Even with an uncharacteristic dislike for seeing expert sports activities — “It’s only fascinating if I know the gamers,” she stated — Nat grew up enjoying volleyball, basketball and soccer. Sports activities adopted her to Lynchburg Higher education, in which she took up pictures in the athletics section. In her sophomore yr, she won a summer months internship with the Minnesota Zoo.

“I still left her at a reptile trainer’s dwelling. The position was comprehensive of aquariums, snakes, and hawks having mice on the dresser,” Pat reported. “It was probably a person of the most difficult issues I did as a mother, but 1 of the finest matters for her.”     

The future summer time, Nat interned at the North Carolina Zoo. Totally intending to go into zoo images, a freelancing opportunity at a Virginia Tech soccer match upended her strategies.

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

Senior 12 months spring brought Lunn to Lynchburg’s campus, exactly where a brief relationship and tons of likes dropped by Nat on Lunn’s instagram led to Nat’s initial task at Duke — taking pictures football and basketball video games. She made the two-and-a-half-hour commute to Durham two to 3 moments a week.

“Nat’s generally been a risk-taker in many ways,” Pat mentioned. 

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

We planned to fulfill in her office environment the working day in advance of the Wake Forest tennis match. As she sat down in the oversized swivel chair at the rear of her desk, she admitted that the pictures of the Labrador and the memorabilia on the cabinets didn’t belong to her — it was technically Lunn’s office that they shared. 

My offer you to go exterior was fulfilled with a sigh of reduction and, “Yes, be sure to! I’m seeking to perform on my tan!”      

She stretched herself throughout two chairs, toes up, soaking in the sun. On her wrist was a neon orange check out. At occasions, I identified myself feeling extra interviewed than the other way all-around. Nat is working on a tattoo sleeve of all 50 states on her proper arm — her past a single was the Kansas point out flower — but somehow the attention turned to a corgi sticker on my phone case.  

“Do you have a corgi?” she asked excitedly. My remedy was scarcely out when she started out inquiring about the other stickers. “What does this just one say …”     

As we chatted about Duke Athletics and I rattled off close friends on unique teams, Nat’s encounter lit up. “Oh my gosh, Ellie on tennis! She’s the sweetest!” 

Rarely could I bring up a title that she didn’t recognize. “Alayna? I assisted her with her Italian research! Or tried out to, at least,” she said with a tiny snicker at her dyslexia and Increase. 

This is what she’s superior at. 

“In the studio, Nat will make the scholar athletes she works with sense so comfy,” said Madison Olmo, a producer/editor for Blue Satan Network and mate of Nat. “She delivers out their personalities beyond the stoic athletics shots that you typically see.”

Her part as the observer alternatively of the observed comes from an innate sincerity and curiosity, a legitimate motivation to study additional about her subjects. 

“She refers to the athletes as ‘her athletes,’” mentioned Liv Warren, Nat’s girlfriend. “She attempts to link with every and each one of them.” 

Nat would never ever admit it, but she’s a campus celebrity amongst Duke Athletics. Each athlete knows the tattooed, Luke Combs-loving photographer with an affinity for puns, and each Duke employee is familiar with of her undying loyalty and meticulous get the job done ethic.     

“Nat’s a unicorn,” Lunn stated. He’s ideal. 

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