As Duke men’s tennis forms their pre-game huddle against Wake Forest in late March, a seemingly extra team member walks into Ambler Stadium with a similar sense of purpose — except this team member has long dark hair and a Nikon D5 camera instead 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, two, three!”
She’s tucked between junior Faris Khan and first-year Pedro Rodenas, close enough to snap the energy while positioned right outside their circle. Keeping a “respectful distance” is overrated. She’s immersed.
Poised to shoot, Nat seems more ready to catch the first point than the players are to score it. If you look away for a second, she’s gone, teleported to another court. She’s perched on a bench, squatting behind a recycling bin or crouched next to a bright red Wilson tennis bag so big it almost seems like she could fit into it. Eyes aren’t often on her, but her eyes are on everyone and everything. She doesn’t miss a moment.
Well, maybe a few. Nat looks behind her shoulder in mild disappointment as sophomore Connor Krug and first-year Teddy Truwit win their first doubles set against the Demon Deacons — even the best of sports photographers can’t catch it all.
In 2021, Nat was featured in the U.S. Lacrosse Magazine after she captured the winning shots and saves of Duke men versus Syracuse and Carolina a week prior. Her photos have been published on ESPNW, Swimming World Magazine and the ACC Network.
“She has a way of looking at things that’s so different from anybody else,” said Meagan Arce, Duke’s director of sports marketing. “She gets the most unique shots.”
“I think Nat’s the most valuable person in the Duke Athletics department,” said Reagan Lunn, executive director of athletics photography. “She’s always been incredibly reliable and trustworthy.”
When Nat and I hopped on our first call, she smiled sheepishly. “When I saw you wanted to write a profile on me, I thought you had emailed the wrong person.”
Nat has been a staff photographer at Duke Athletics for almost six years. Her path to sports photography wasn’t clear at first.
“When Nat started and came to photograph Duke football practices, I told her to take pictures of the quarterback,” Lunn said. “And she said, ‘What's a quarterback?’”
Nowadays, Nat’s finger is on the pulse of all 27 Duke teams. Two hours ago, it was women’s tennis. Tomorrow, women’s lacrosse. Right now, her lens is focused on the tensing jaw of the men’s tennis head coach.
It almost seemed natural for Nat to end up on a college campus. Nat and her mom Patricia moved around Virginia while Pat worked in college admissions, settling at Roanoke College. Her aunts, uncles and grandparents all worked in education, from kindergarten teachers 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 translates to Mighty Phoenix,” said Pat, who raised Nat as a single mom. “She was sick, stubborn, and feisty, but she was a fighter.”
The two took to each other quickly, and it’s been Pat and Nat ever since.
After second grade, Nat transferred to Holy Cross Catholic Regional School in Lynchburg, Va. The family started a tradition of shopping for shoes, the only way Nat could show her identity in a school uniform. Neon orange Nikes, to be exact.
“I think I probably have like 17 or 18 pairs now,” Nat said, laughing. Her current favorites are a pair of Air Max 270s.
Despite an uncharacteristic dislike for watching professional sports — “It’s only interesting if I know the players,” she said — Nat grew up playing volleyball, basketball and soccer. Sports followed her to Lynchburg College, where she took up photography in the athletics department. In her sophomore year, she won a summer internship with the Minnesota Zoo.
“I left her at a reptile trainer’s house. The place was full of aquariums, snakes, and hawks eating mice on the dresser,” Pat said. “It was probably one of the hardest things I did as a mom, but one of the best things for her.”
The next summer, Nat interned at the North Carolina Zoo. Fully intending to go into zoo photography, a freelancing opportunity at a Virginia Tech football game upended her plans.
Metallica’s Enter Sandman boomed over the loudspeakers. Students jumped to the beat, waving orange pom poms wildly. The energy was addictive. Nat was hooked.
Senior year spring brought Lunn to Lynchburg’s campus, where a brief connection and lots of likes dropped by Nat on Lunn’s instagram led to Nat’s first job at Duke — shooting football and basketball games. She made the two-and-a-half-hour commute to Durham two to three times a week.
“Nat’s always been a risk-taker in many ways,” Pat said.
The long 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 art, and that very August she was working full-time at Duke.
We planned to meet in her office the day before the Wake Forest tennis match. As she sat down in the oversized swivel chair behind her desk, she admitted that the pictures of the Labrador and the memorabilia on the shelves didn’t belong to her — it was technically Lunn’s office that they shared.
My offer to move outside was met with a sigh of relief and, “Yes, please! I’m trying to work on my tan!”
She stretched herself across two chairs, feet up, soaking in the sun. On her wrist was a neon orange watch. At times, I found myself feeling more interviewed than the other way around. Nat is working on a tattoo sleeve of all 50 states on her right arm — her last one was the Kansas state flower — but somehow the attention turned to a corgi sticker on my phone case.
“Do you have a corgi?” she asked excitedly. My answer was barely out when she started inquiring about the other stickers. “What does this one say ...”
As we chatted about Duke Athletics and I rattled off friends on different teams, Nat’s face lit up. “Oh my gosh, Ellie on tennis! She’s the sweetest!”
Rarely could I bring up a name that she didn’t recognize. “Alayna? I helped her with her Italian homework! Or tried to, at least,” she said with a small laugh at her dyslexia and ADD.
This is what she’s good at.
“In the studio, Nat makes the student athletes she works with feel so comfortable,” said Madison Olmo, a producer/editor for Blue Devil Network and friend of Nat. “She brings out their personalities beyond the stoic athletics photos that you normally see.”
Her role as the observer instead of the observed comes from an innate sincerity and curiosity, a genuine desire to learn more about her subjects.
“She refers to the athletes as ‘her athletes,’” said Liv Warren, Nat’s girlfriend. “She tries to connect with each and every one of them.”
Nat would never admit it, but she’s a campus celebrity among Duke Athletics. Every athlete knows the tattooed, Luke Combs-loving photographer with an affinity for puns, and every Duke employee knows of her undying loyalty and meticulous work ethic.
“Nat’s a unicorn,” Lunn said. He’s right.
Editor's Note: Christina Ferrari is co-captain of the Duke fencing team.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.