As Duke men’s tennis forms their pre-recreation huddle from Wake Forest in late March, a seemingly additional group member walks into Ambler Stadium with a very similar sense of reason — apart from this team member has extended dark hair and a Nikon D5 digicam alternatively 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 3! One, two, 3!”   

She’s tucked concerning junior Faris Khan and to start with-yr Pedro Rodenas, close sufficient to snap the vitality when positioned right outside their circle. Retaining a “respectful distance” is overrated. She’s immersed.   

“Go Duke!”   

Poised to shoot, Nat appears a lot more ready to catch the 1st issue than the gamers are to score it. If you glance away for a second, she’s long gone, teleported to another court docket. She’s perched on a bench, squatting powering a recycling bin or crouched upcoming to a bright pink Wilson tennis bag so big it just about would seem like she could fit into it. Eyes are not frequently on her, but her eyes are on all people and every thing. She doesn’t skip a minute.      

Perfectly, it’s possible a handful of. Nat appears to be powering her shoulder in delicate disappointment as sophomore Connor Krug and very first-year Teddy Truwit gain their initial doubles set versus the Demon Deacons — even the best of athletics photographers simply cannot catch it all.  

In 2021, Nat was featured in the U.S. Lacrosse Journal following she captured the winning photographs and saves of Duke guys vs . Syracuse and Carolina a 7 days prior. Her photos have been posted on ESPNW, Swimming Planet Magazine and the ACC Network.    

“She has a way of searching at things that’s so diverse from any one else,” reported Meagan Arce, Duke’s director of sports activities marketing. “She receives the most exclusive photographs.”  

“I imagine Nat’s the most worthwhile man or woman in the Duke Athletics section,” explained Reagan Lunn, govt director of athletics photography. “She’s always been very reliable and trusted.”      

When Nat and I hopped on our 1st phone, she smiled sheepishly. “When I saw you preferred to publish a profile on me, I imagined you experienced emailed the wrong particular person.”    

Nat has been a employees photographer at Duke Athletics for almost 6 several years. Her route to sporting activities images wasn’t distinct at first. 

“When Nat started and arrived to photograph Duke soccer tactics, I instructed her to acquire photographs of the quarterback,” Lunn stated. “And she reported, ‘What’s a quarterback?’”    

Nowadays, Nat’s finger is on the pulse of all 27 Duke groups. Two several hours back, it was women’s tennis. Tomorrow, women’s lacrosse. Proper now, her lens is focused on the tensing jaw of the men’s tennis head coach. 

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Image by Jaylynn Nash

It practically seemed pure for Nat to conclusion up on a university campus. Nat and her mom Patricia moved close to Virginia though Pat labored in college admissions, settling at Roanoke College. Her aunts, uncles and grandparents all worked in education, from kindergarten instructors to biology professors.    

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

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

The two took to every other immediately, and it is been Pat and Nat at any time because.

Just after second quality, Nat transferred to Holy Cross Catholic Regional College in Lynchburg, Va. The household begun a custom of buying for footwear, the only way Nat could exhibit her id in a university uniform. Neon orange Nikes, to be precise.     

“I imagine I most likely have like 17 or 18 pairs now,” Nat explained, laughing. Her recent favorites are a pair of Air Max 270s.     

Regardless of an uncharacteristic dislike for watching specialist sporting activities — “It’s only intriguing if I know the players,” she reported — Nat grew up enjoying volleyball, basketball and soccer. Sports activities adopted her to Lynchburg College, exactly where she took up photography in the athletics office. In her sophomore 12 months, she won a summer months internship with the Minnesota Zoo.

“I remaining her at a reptile trainer’s residence. The place was entire of aquariums, snakes, and hawks ingesting mice on the dresser,” Pat explained. “It was most likely a single of the toughest issues I did as a mom, but one particular of the finest things for her.”     

The up coming summertime, Nat interned at the North Carolina Zoo. Fully intending to go into zoo images, a freelancing opportunity at a Virginia Tech soccer video game upended her ideas.

Metallica’s Enter Sandman boomed about the loudspeakers. Pupils jumped to the defeat, waving orange pom poms wildly. The electricity was addictive. Nat was hooked.   

Senior 12 months spring introduced Lunn to Lynchburg’s campus, exactly where a short relationship and lots of likes dropped by Nat on Lunn’s instagram led to Nat’s very first task at Duke — taking pictures football and basketball games. She designed the two-and-a-half-hour commute to Durham two to a few times a week.

“Nat’s usually been a possibility-taker in quite a few methods,” Pat claimed. 

The extended drives in her 2003 Honda CRV and investing Thanksgiving and Christmas freelancing proved worthwhile. Nat graduated in 2018 from Lynchburg with a degree in communications and art, and that quite August she was performing whole-time at Duke.

We planned to meet in her business the working day just before the Wake Forest tennis match. As she sat down in the outsized swivel chair powering her desk, she admitted that the shots of the Labrador and the memorabilia on the shelves didn’t belong to her — it was technically Lunn’s office environment that they shared. 

My present to transfer outdoors was fulfilled with a sigh of reduction and, “Yes, remember to! I’m making an attempt to operate on my tan!”      

She stretched herself throughout two chairs, toes up, soaking in the sunshine. On her wrist was a neon orange observe. At periods, I identified myself experience a lot more interviewed than the other way close to. Nat is working on a tattoo sleeve of all 50 states on her proper arm — her last a single was the Kansas condition flower — but somehow the attention turned to a corgi sticker on my phone scenario.  

“Do you have a corgi?” she asked excitedly. My response was barely out when she commenced inquiring about the other stickers. “What does this 1 say …”     

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

Rarely could I provide up a title that she did not identify. “Alayna? I helped her with her Italian homework! Or tried using to, at minimum,” she reported with a little chortle at her dyslexia and Add. 

This is what she’s good at. 

“In the studio, Nat would make the college student athletes she performs with sense so at ease,” claimed Madison Olmo, a producer/editor for Blue Satan Network and mate of Nat. “She brings out their personalities past the stoic athletics pics that you generally see.”

Her position as the observer as an alternative of the observed arrives from an innate sincerity and curiosity, a authentic wish to study more about her topics. 

“She refers to the athletes as ‘her athletes,’” explained Liv Warren, Nat’s girlfriend. “She tries to connect with just about every and each and every a single of them.” 

Nat would never admit it, but she’s a campus superstar among Duke Athletics. Just about every athlete knows the tattooed, Luke Combs-loving photographer with an affinity for puns, and every Duke worker knows of her undying loyalty and meticulous get the job done ethic.     

“Nat’s a unicorn,” Lunn claimed. He’s right. 

Editor’s Note: Christina Ferrari is co-captain of the Duke fencing workforce.

By Indana