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Women’s Tennis: Leading Leidy to smiles

Dan Tapetillo | Thursday, February 23, 2006

Notre Dame moved into the top 10 with its upset over No. 9 Harvard last weekend. But in Emma Leidy’s mind, the Irish always have been a high caliber team.

Emma, a 5-year-old leukemia patient, is one of the team’s biggest fans. She attends each match to cheer on “her tennis girls.”

“Every minute she can spend with them is special,” Emma’s mother, Leann Leidy, said. “She just loves being anywhere the girls are. Even if she feels icky, she’s all smiles [at the matches].”

Leidy is a patient of the South Bend Pediatric Oncology Program at Memorial Hospital. She began following the women’s tennis team after Harold Swanagan, coordinator of student welfare and development at Notre Dame, paired Leidy with the squad in a program called Fighting Irish Fight for Life.

The women’s team spends time with the child, taking her to movies, bowling allies and welcoming her for home matches.

“Doing something outside the tennis court really helps to unify the team,” senior captain Lauren Connelly said. “It is inspiring to see someone so inspired to watch us play. This makes us want to play well for her.”

Her mother said Emma’s affection for the team has grown with its consistent generosity.

“They gave her a gift card to Build-A-Bear Workshop for Christmas,” Leann Leidy said. “But it had to have a tennis outfit, racket and balls because her tennis girls gave it to her. She goes around saying she wants to be a tennis player when she grows up. She adores them.”

Emma Leidy was diagnosed with leukemia in June 2004 when she was just 3 years old. What first appeared as just flu symptoms worsened into the biggest shock the family had ever experienced.

“Nobody in our family has had it before,” Leann Leidy said. “So it came as a huge surprise because we thought she had the flu and it wouldn’t go away.”

Soon after Emma’s diagnosis, the family’s focus turned to chemotherapy, bone marrow treatments and long hospital stays. Emma’s older brothers Kenton, 11, and Braeden, 8, were forced to make the biggest adjustments.

“It was hard at first because [Kenton and Braeden] were left out and everything was about Emma,” Leann Leann said. “We were constantly at the hospital and having chemo.”

Once Emma’s brothers understood their sister’s situation, they and the rest of their classes raised pennies to donate to the pediatric clinic. But the opportunity to spend time with the Notre Dame women’s tennis team has lifted Emma’s spirits most.

“There has been a lot of support for Emma,” Leann Leidy said. “But as far as really being there for her, nothing [compares to what] the girls have been doing in all the outings. They have really focused on Emma.”

In addition to seeing the film ‘Hoodwinked’ and getting personal tennis lessons, Emma also has gone shopping with the team at the Notre Dame Bookstore.

Emma has grown to love the University through these activities.

“Emma wanted to go to the bookstore, so a few [team members] met with us to shop with her and she found cool Notre Dame stuff,” Leann Leidy said. “She wanted one of everything.”

And the team also has taken a more serious role in Emma’s life. Last fall, Lauren Connelly went with the Leidy family to Emma’s spinal tap.

“I wanted to see what a kid her age had to go through,” Connelly said. “But it was great to see her attitude about it because she had a smile the whole time. It was really neat to see how she can take a situation like this and make it into something good.”

This team dedication has given Leann Leidy a deeper appreciation for their contribution to her daughter’s life.

“Whenever she sees them all, she goes up and hugs them,” she said. “It is really awesome to see these girls have an interest in her. They have given Emma a chance to grow up.

“But it is also good for the [tennis team] because here is this little girl going through this horrible stuff, and she has cancer, and she is a survivor.”

Irish senior Kelly Nelson draws inspiration from the 5-year-old child and friend.

“She is so brave about her treatments. She keeps such a positive outlook,” Nelson said. “I think that is very refreshing for us to be around her. She counts on us, and that gives us more of a purpose behind our competition.”