Just before her name was called all 1,200 people in the Jack Singer Concert Hall held their collective breath. One of the female athletes seated in the front row was about to win the Ninth Annual Howard Mackie Award. Among the nominees were a former Olympic swimmer, a team captain of a hockey squad with a perfect season and the University of Calgary's basketball legend Leighann Doan.
There was a short moment of silence before the name of the winner was read aloud. Having watched Doan play in a Dinos uniform for two seasons, I found myself forgetting unbiased journalism and rooting for her to win the award on her very last day as a varsity athlete. If I was nervous, I can't even begin to imagine what her teammates and her family felt at that moment. Doan's name was called and the crowd erupted into wild applause. As she walked up to the stage looking surprised and even a little embarrassed, everyone rose to their feet.
"I was shocked," she said after the award show ended. "I was trying to get so many thoughts prepared walking up there. I thought some tears might come."
Doan reached the stage, stood at the podium and looked out into the crowd. There sat her friends, her teammates, her coach, her family and her fiancée. All the people who were a part of her life sat smiling back at her.
Doan was noticeably moved by the deafening applause and the happiness in the crowd. Minutes later, when McMaster University standout Kojo Aidoo won the men's half of the award, the crowd was still smiling. When Aidoo finished his speech, he and Doan stood in the spotlight together, holding their awards. The crowd rose again and Doan also received her last standing ovation.
"Seeing her up on the stage in front of 1,200 people accepting the award it made me think back over the last five years," said U of C women's basketball Head Coach Shawnee Harle. "When she came in as a 17-year-old she didn't have much of a clue as to what was happening in the game of basketball. She grew up in a small town, didn't have a lot of confidence--really quiet and soft spoken.
"When I look at her now, she's led this team, carried it on her shoulders. You look at her stand up in front of all the people with no words written down, and you see the poise and the confidence."
Doan matured immensely in her five years in Calgary. In addition to becoming a basketball legend, she grew into what coach Harle describes as a "well-balanced and mature woman."
A Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union Rookie of the Year title in her first season was followed by four consecutive All-Canadian seasons and two Nan Copp Awards recognizing Doan as the best female basketball player in the nation. But her legacy is not just athletics. As a four-time Royal Bank Academic All Canadian and an active member of the community she is also the perfect example of a student athlete. And Kojo Aidoo was right when he said with a grin, "You guys love her. I could sense that when they introduced her."
"I didn't know Leighann much before this weekend," Aidoo said. "I met her this weekend and she is an outstanding person. And when you win the award for the best in your sport for two years in a row you deserve that sort of recognition."
One question I tried to ask everyone was why Doan got the nod ahead of other deserving female athletes. While nearly everyone had a theory, Doan didn't.
"Honestly, I don't really know," she said. "I had myself convinced I wouldn't win. I guess they saw something that set me apart from the other four athletes but I don't really know what it might be."
Others had plenty to say about Doan's qualifications.
"She's just a great individual in every capacity," said U of C Athletic Director Don Wilson. "It doesn't get any better than Leighann Doan."
"What separated Doan from the rest of the athletes?" I asked.
"Probably great coaching," answered coach Harle with a grin. "But seriously, I don't think I can answer that. I was sitting there when they were opening the envelope and I felt more nervous than I've ever been for any award she was nominated for. I honestly didn't know if she was going to be the name on the little piece of paper."
Doan and Aidoo were united on the stage for a brief moment but now they all go in different directions. Aidoo will finish his schooling at McMaster where he plans to play out his two remaining years of CIAU eligibility. Doan will head for the European pro leagues next fall as a newlywed and plans on returning once her basketball career concludes. As much as Calgary and the campus will miss her, for the sake of basketball fans around the world she will hopefully not be back for a long, long time.