I Can!


“I can” are the two words that have made all the difference in the life of Doni DeCory.

Doni hefted the shot easily in one hand and took her position at the end of the school’s playing field. She paused, balanced in her stance, the shot cradled against her neck. She pushed off, and with an explosion of air, released the shot. She watched it hit the turf and groaned in frustration. It wasn’t going anywhere.

It was Doni DeCory’s senior year, her last year of high school track. For two years she had held the South Dakota state championship in shot put. But during this, her senior year, when she was expected to take the title for the third consecutive year, she was falling apart.

“I wasn’t throwing anywhere near what I did in my junior year,” said Doni. “People were saying, ‘Come on, Doni, you’ve got to take the state record again.’ There was so much pressure. I just wanted to quit.”

Doni did quit—for a day. The next day, when she didn’t leave for practice, her mother asked why she wasn’t going. “Mom, it’s over with,” said Doni. “I can’t do anything. I’m not going.”

“Then I asked my mom what she thought about my quitting. She said, ‘It’s up to you. We’re not going to push you to do anything you don’t want to do. But think about it, Doni. Is this really you? Do you really want to quit?’ Then she left the room, and the decision was up to me.”

Doni thought about it, until an idea occurred to her. If she quit now, then she’d always want to quit when things got too hard. Her mother and dad had supported her since grade school in her schoolwork and in her sports. They came, not just to her games and meets, but to all her practices. They had always been there for her. Now when things were going so badly, she knew she could turn to them again for help.

Doni didn’t quit, but her throwing did not improve much. Her parents practiced with her, retrieving the shot over and over. It took time. Her mental composure returned; then her tosses lengthened. She peaked right when she was supposed to, at the state championships when she took the title for the third straight year.

Doni’s story could be like many others where a talented athlete overcomes discouragement and goes on to win. But Doni’s story is a little more complicated than that. No one in her little town of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, even knew how to coach her in shot put. Her mother and the running coach together would try to figure out suggestions for improvement by watching tapes. The odds of her doing well were very much against her. If Doni had said, “I can’t do it,” not too many people would have argued with her.

But Doni wanted to give it a try, and through her efforts and faith, the support of her family and friends, and her natural athletic ability she accomplished great things.

Doni had a reputation for success. She played varsity basketball and volleyball. She ran track. She was a cheerleader. And she was an excellent student and graduated as valedictorian of her high school. She also was the recipient of a national $20,000 scholarship that, combined with her athletic scholarship, will cover most of her college expenses at Brigham Young University.

She was one of 50 students across the nation to receive the top scholarships offered by a big soft drink company. The competition was incredible, with 50,000 students applying for the scholarships. Doni’s chances seemed minuscule.

Again, if Doni herself had said that she didn’t have a chance, many might have agreed with her. After all, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, on the reservation of the Oglala-Sioux, is in one of the poorest counties in the nation. The high school is small and doesn’t offer as sophisticated an education as larger schools. But Doni had already learned some lessons from her sports about accepting a challenge. “Sometimes small towns can’t offer the latest technical background, so the only way you can really improve is to challenge yourself and to challenge your teachers. It can earn you a chance.”

Doni and her dad found out about the scholarship by reading through books that described different scholarships offered each year. Her application was accepted. Then began a grueling series of essays, with half of the applicants eliminated after each round.

Doni got tired of writing essays. Sometimes she felt like she had nothing to say. When that happened, her dad would sit at the kitchen table and talk when it was her turn to do the dishes. He would guide the conversation until Doni was telling him what she thought about the future and about the things she was studying. Then, when the dishes were finished, he would say to her, “Okay, that’s what your next essay is about. Go write down what you just said.”

Doni made it to the last 100 contestants. Then she had to appear in person before a panel of judges who questioned her about her essays. There was no way to prepare. You just had to go in and do your best. She did it and was one of the final 50 to receive the scholarships.

Now Doni’s at college. She’s loving being just a number in a huge crowd. “At home I would be Doni DeCory, the smartest one in the class. But here no one knows who you are. If I get a 100 on a test, it really means something to me. No one else even knows what I get.”

Doni also made a big step during her high school years when she, along with her mother and little brother, joined the Church. Before accepting the challenge to be baptized, Doni attended five different churches to find out where she felt comfortable. “I never felt anything at the other churches,” said Doni, “But when I walked in the door of the Pine Ridge Ward, I felt a funny feeling. I didn’t know what it was, but it gave me the chills. I looked at my mom and she looked at me. She had felt it too. And then everyone was glad to see us. They didn’t know who we were, but there was just that feeling there.”

Being away from home at college was hard at first because her mom and dad weren’t there at practices when things were not going well. And she misses her little brother Senecca, the one she likes to pal around with at home. Last year, when Doni would get discouraged, he would come into her room, give her a hug, and tell her he wanted to be just like her. Now he’s not there to do that.

It’s also tough on Senecca being Doni’s little brother. “In junior high he’s already got pressures,” said Doni. “People say, ‘How come you’re not good at this? Your sister is.’ He has to go through a lot of that. He could resent me, but he is just as encouraging as my parents are. He and I can talk. He’s really smart for a little boy.”

Doni heads for a practice field at BYU, a Division I university. She always wanted to compete at that high level but wondered sometimes about her chances of making it, coming from such a small town in such a remote state. But Doni has learned how to succeed. She has learned to knock and see what kinds of doors will open.

When Doni DeCory says, “I can”—believe her.

[photos] Photography by Mark Philbrick

[photos] Doni’s mother, Yvonne, and her little brother, Senecca, are in the bleachers to watch her compete whenever possible. Doni likes the fact that basketball is a team effort, a group of people relying on one another.

[photo] Doni took state in shot put because of her natural ability, but now, at college, she has some expert advice from Chuck Stiggins, strength and conditioning coach. “I’m pretty anxious to see what I can do,” Doni says.

[photo] Doni’s father, Lee Allen, helped her look for college scholarships to apply for. She studies hard because she wants to go into physical therapy. When things get piled up, Doni says, “If I really do care about my career, I better go to class.”

[photo] When missionaries talked to Doni about the Book of Mormon, she asked, “Who is the Book of Mormon about?” When they answered that it was about her, she was intrigued. “It got me interested because it was telling me where I came from.”

[photo] Doni loves being at college but misses the day-to-day support of her family. “Where is my support going to come from? Who is going to push me to practice?” Doni says. But her parents have taught her well, and she knows the answer, “It’s going to have to be me.”