Year of the Girl, a personal project I've embarked upon seeking out girls making a difference in the community, doing what they love. I interview them for tidbits of wisdom that only they have, and then I make portraits of them to share with them and with all of you. At it's core, "Year of the Girl" is a human interest project which seeks to empower young girls, their voices, their desires/dreams for the future, their unique qualities in order to offer other girls (and women alike) role models, inspiration, motivation, strength.
I met Peyton McDaniel, a 15-year-old sophomore, who maintains a 4.3 GPA, student athlete, attending Twin Valley High School in Elverson, PA on a crisp Saturday morning in February in her high school gymnasium. Her mom, Holly Hubert and one of Peyton's coaches, Nate Mensak, were also in attendance for our interview/shoot. I brought my middle daughter, Alanna along as well. Even some of her teammates made an appearance to cheer Peyton on! Here are excerpts from the interview, peeks into Peyton's life, I was so warmly granted...
BL: How do you balance your school work during a busy basketball season?
PM: It’s not that hard. I just try and get my homework done before practice, so I stay after school everyday and then have like 3 hours before practice, that’s when I do all my homework.
BL: How often do you practice [basketball]?
BL: When did you start playing basketball?
PM: I was five.
HH: It was through the YMCA’s program at Robeson Elementary. Mrs. Davanzati and I were the coaches. We’d have games on Friday nights and [the kids] were good.
PM: We were good. (smiling)
BL: Do you do anything special before a big game? Rituals? Superstitions? Prayer? Mindset to help prepare you?
PM: Yea, I eat before a game (laughs). I always put my hair in a ponytail. And Heihei (the beloved rooster from the film, Moana) is always at all of our games. Me and Ava always split half of a pretzel before a game. That always works out. Shoot. Start shooting. (laughing) Oh yea, and when we go to tournaments and we win a game. Well, when my mom always tries to wash the uniform, but you can’t wash the success out of it (laughs). So, I don’t like it when she washes my uniform, so I just wear it again. It’s good defense.
BL: That’s right! Then they stay clear away. (laughing).
PM: These ones are clean though (pointing to her uniform, laughing).
BL: When you traveled [overseas with the Student Athlete World Organization] last summer to compete in the United World Games, what parts of Europe did you visit?
PM: Austria, Italy, and Germany. We flew into Germany and then traveled to the other parts. All the games were played in Austria.
BL: And you played with other Americans from around the country?
PM: Yes, there was a girl from California, Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia, Texas.
BL: How did you become chosen for that special honor? Did you have to apply for it?
PM: It was a long process.
HH: It took about 2 to 3 months. She just got an email invitation to apply. She had to submit her initial information and once that goes through, she had to write a bio about yourself explaining why she wanted to be a part of this, and if that’s accepted than you submit school transcripts to make sure you’re an honorable student. And if that’s accepted, than she had to go get letters of recommendation from different coaches and teachers. And if that’s accepted than she had to go through an interview on the phone. So, out of 13,000 [Student Athlete World Team USA] applicants [Peyton] was the 2nd to be chosen They take eight girls.
BL: Wow. That's amazing!
BL: Speaking of your Europe trip, what most impressed you about that experience?
PM: Probably the connections that you make because I’m still in touch with all of the girls I played with. That was really fun.
HH: I think it makes you appreciate America too. Because every morning she woke up and cried “I just need Chick-fil-A!”
PM: Oh my gosh, yea. It’s just like crazy. They don’t put ice in their water. They have still water and gassed water. Gassed water is just like carbonated flavored water like we have, but it’s not flavored, so all you taste is bubbles. It’s so disgusting. It’s so bad. I ate corn flakes and pineapple every morning. Corn flakes and pineapple. Dry, no milk. (we’re all laughing). We won seven games with that, [coach] Nate.
NM: (laughing) Hey, if it worked for ya.
PM: It did.
HH: After they won the first, then again, if you’re winning. Like the last 2 weeks of the season, I had to get a Weaver’s sandwich for her every single game before they played because once she had it and they won, than you have to do it again and again. God bless Weaver’s.
NM: They make great sandwiches.
BL: Yes, they do.
BL: What would you have changed about the Europe trip?
PM: Put Chick-fil-A there. (everyone’s laughing) I mean, they have McDonald’s, but… no. [The trip] was good just the way it was.
BL: What did you like best?
PM: Probably just being with my team and experiencing the people there, ‘cause some of them really don’t like Americans and it’s really funny. (laughing) We would always try and speak German to them and they would just look at us. There were many [characters].
BL: So, when you’re not playing ball or working on your school studies, what do you enjoy doing?
PM: Hanging out with the other girls on my team ‘cause I’m always [in the gym at school]. When I’m not here I’m with them.
HH: When you’re not here (at school) you’re begging to be here.
PM: Ah, yea. Or I’m texting Nate! Shooting machine!!
PM: Shooting machine. I love that thing.
BL: What do you do to relax?
PM: Shooting machine. Yea, definitely the shooting machine.
BL: What does teamwork mean to you?
PM: You know, always having each other’s backs and working together. Because I feel like our team really had that this year. I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to win 22 games without it. Always have your teammates back.
BL: Who has most influenced you?
PM: This is hard. Umm.. Okay, I have a lot of people. Can I say multiple people?
BL: Of course! Yes, please.
PM: Definitely my parents, then Coach Morrow and Nate, and then, my teammates because they always push me in practice
BL: Do you have anyone in particular that you admire, like another athlete?
PM: Like famous?
PM: Definitely Steph Curry because I love Steph Curry. (smiling) Definitely.
HH: How about Ashley Hoffman?
PM: Oh, yea, definitely Ashley Hoffman. I’ve known her for a really long time. She used to babysit me at my mom’s school and I’ve always kind of looked up to her.
BL: Is she an athlete?
PM: Yes, she goes to UNC and plays field hockey.
HH: She was on a U21 USA team. She’ll probably be in the next set of Olympics.
PM: She’s really good. Yea, so I’ve always kind of looked up to her. She’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet.
BL: My 8 year-old, Emilia, wants to know: What’s your favorite food?
PM: Tacos. I love tacos. Oh my gosh.
BL: Emilia loves tacos too. She’s going to love that answer.
PM: I love tacos.
BL: Emilia’s question: What’s your favorite class?
PM: Umm, okay, well I don’t know. Lunch.
BL: Lunch? (everyone’s laughing) That’s not a class!
PM: Umm, well, I can count that because I eat in every block, like I don’t stop eating throughout the day. I’m always hungry. But, if it’s like a fun class it’s definitely gym, but if it’s a serious class than it’s probably math. I like math better than anything else because I hate English, really bad. I don’t like that class at all, like, it’s awful. It shouldn’t be allowed. It should be illegal.
BL: Aww, why? What don’t you like about it?
PM: I don’t like writing essays and I hate reading. I really do.
BL: It’s hard for you to concentrate? Or sit still?
PM: I can’t just like sit there and read words. Like, I don’t see how people think that’s fun. I need to be doing something.
HH: Now mind you, she’s never gotten a “B.” She’ll do it. She’ll push through.
PM: Ah, yea. But it’s torture. (everyone’s laughing)
BL: Emilia wants to know what is your favorite holiday?
PM: Ooo, my favorite holiday? Christmas. Definitely Christmas.
BL: I think she would agree with you there too.
PM: I love Christmas music.
BL: Do you feel that there’s any challenges that may be met differently being a girl? Are there any specific challenges you might have being a girl in high school?
HH: As a student athlete.
PM: I don’t know how to answer this one (laughs). I don’t have any challenges. Not like that at least. Not at school. I mean I just talk to basketball people. Like some people are crazy, they try to do this, that and the other, trying to be popular and I, I could care less. I really could. Just chill. Go to class. Go to basketball. Do some homework. Eat some food. Seems to be working out for me (laughing).
BL: Well, you’re happy. You’ve found your niche so that probably helps a tremendous amount. I’m sure.
BL: What’s your best advice to young girls?
PM: Definitely, just follow your dreams. If you, like have always had a dream of doing something, like I mean, I’ve not always, but when I started watching basketball, I kind of always had the dream to go Pro. Or to do something like that. Never give up because there’s always going to be times where you’re like “oh my gosh, this is awful,” but you just have to push through because you find that awful door it opens a new door and you find something even better and you’re like, “Wow, I’m glad that I didn’t stop.” You know, because even at the beginning of this season, like, the first loss we had that was awful, but you can say if we hadn’t had that first loss we would have had a bigger loss later. Now, we’ve won 22 straight. You’re like “whoa, that meant something.” You’ll get frustrated, a lot, like I’ve been frustrated plenty of times. A lot. A lot. But it’s definitely worth it.
Mrs. Hubert reminded me in a follow up email -- last summer's United World Games was the first time in World Games history that US 16U Girls team won the gold. CONGRATULATIONS, TEAM USA!!! Way to go GIRLS!!!
Special, humble thanks to Mrs. Holly Hubert for supporting me in this project - for jumping on board without hesitation, exhibiting your full trust in me. I couldn't be more grateful.
And thanks to Coach Nate Mensak for your leadership, your calming spirit throughout the interview, knowing how nervous we all were. And for sharing your laughter and good nature.
Most especially, heartfelt gratitude to you, Peyton McDaniel. I am in complete awe of your strength, your commitment to the game and your beloved teammates and to your family and school. You were such a joy to photograph and get to know better. I can't thank you enough for this glimpse into a champion mindset. You shine brightly!!
P.s. If you know of a girl that would be a good fit for Year of the Girl, please get in contact with me! I'm open to your suggestions, friends. We need to hear from more high-achieving girls driven for success. Thanks!
P.p.s. In hindsight, Peyton wants her English teacher to know "no hard feelings and no offense is meant to you and your teaching skills." :)