Smiling Shemiah Sanchez and her painful pursuit of SEC softball stardom
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The ball is batted into the evening sky, and Shemiah Sanchez positions herself underneath it at second base. The LSU softball fans erupt into song. "Miah, Miah," they coo over and over before the ball lands in Sanchez's glove for the third out of the inning. She jogs back toward the dugout and, eyes twinkling, breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. The Miah smile, people call it. It's contagious.
It's LSU's senior tribute weekend, and Alabama is in town for the last regular-season series of the season. Kids carry around LSU magazines with Sanchez's picture on the cover. There are floating heads of Sanchez -- cardboard cutouts -- circulating around the stadium. It is LSU's first sold-out game this season. "I want Miah's signature on this ball," a child yells to her mother.
Sanchez's large family of 20 people -- parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles -- are peppered throughout the stadium. Her boisterous big brother, DeAngelo Sanchez, is in his typical spot behind home plate, pacing the aisle and flashing his giant, wrestling-style belt. The Sanchez family has driven six-and-a-half hours from Georgia to be here. They like to scatter around the stadium so that wherever Shemiah looks, she has a familiar face smiling at her.
Sanchez is a natural on the softball field. When she steps up to the plate, opponents pay attention. "I've pitched in college, but I wouldn't want to pitch to Shemiah. Her eyes, man," says one fan in the stands. Sanchez will play in her final SEC tournament this week, then her final NCAA tournament starting next week. She has had a fantastic senior season, hitting a team-high 17 home runs. She's one home run shy of tying the single-season record set by Bianka Bell in 2015.
None of these achievements -- the home runs, the third outs, the adoration from the fans -- would have happened had she listened to her doctor.
"Shemiah is not supposed to be here," says her mother, Shandria Sanchez.
At 14, during her freshman year of high school, Sanchez was diagnosed with lupus, an auto immune disease that causes the body's immune system to attack its healthy tissues. If her body is overworked, the lupus can flare up and attack her kidneys or her heart.
The doctors' orders were simple: You should not be out there playing softball. It's too much for your body to take.
"But am I even living if I am not playing softball?" Sanchez says. "I owe it to myself to live a full life, and that to me is playing softball."
March 30, 2012. Sanchez remembers the day vividly. She was a freshman at East Coweta High School in Sharpsburg, Georgia, and it was the Friday before spring break. Her entire family was supposed to drive out to the beach, but she woke up feeling sick. She'd been feeling off for a few weeks. She'd had an on-and-off fever, and her joints swelled up. But on that day, she knew something was wrong. She decided to go with her parents to the pediatrician, who ran some tests and told her he'd call her parents with the results by the following week.
Her mother got a phone call from the doctor later that afternoon, around 4 p.m.
"You need to take Shemiah to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta right now. This cannot wait. Shemiah is showing signs of lupus and is in danger," the doctor told Shandria over the phone. The urgency in his voice sent chills down her spine.
Shemiah's parents drove her 40 miles from their home in Newnan, Georgia, to Atlanta, and Sanchez was admitted to the kidney transplant floor as one of the advanced cases. The lupus was triggering kidney failure. It was also making breathing difficult, and her heart was being forced to work too hard.
She spent seven days in the hospital. After the fourth day, her vitals improved. She was out of immediate danger, the doctors said, and she dodged the need for a kidney transplant.
"I don't think you should play softball anymore. Find something to do indoors," the doctor said when he signed her discharge papers.
Six weeks later, after a lot of rest and soul searching, Sanchez was on the softball field. Lupus was such an unknown entity that she was reluctant to talk about it with friends and teammates, but that didn't mean she was going to let it stop her.
"Softball made me feel free. I could spend hours there and not worry about lupus," she said.
Shandria realized her daughter's affinity for softball when Shemiah was 6 years old. Shandria took Shemiah to her travel dance team practices, and when she asked Shemiah to hold and wave a flag -- gracefully -- Shemiah gripped the pole like it was a bat, ready to swing it. "Miah! This is not softball. Hold the flag pole, and wave it gently," her mom yelled at her while trying hard not to laugh.
By the time Shemiah Sanchez was 10, she could recognize a perfect swing. The earliest newspaper clipping of Sanchez came when she was in high school, and it included a photo. She had stepped up to bat, and her opponent, upon seeing her, squatted down, hands on her head, knowing the game was over. And it was. The same thing happened when Sanchez's cousin, Shania Colton, who played for her rival school, watched her come to bat late in a game that East Coweta High was losing. Sanchez hit a home run to win it.
"It was horrible for me, but she was just that good, so how could I be mad?" Colton said.
When Sanchez wanted to continue playing with lupus, her parents understood. But it didn't mean they weren't terrified. Her mother sobbed through the first game she played after her diagnosis.
Her father, Manuel Sanchez, channeled his worry into faith. If he believed in anything, it was that his daughter had the resolve to push herself. Shemiah was still his baby girl, but if softball made her feel alive, how could he possibly stop her?
Sanchez graduated from East Coweta as an all-state performer, holding 15 school records. In her senior season, her .463 batting average and 12 home runs earned her the Newnan Times-Herald Player of the Year award.
Next up: She was going to play college ball.
It was the first Monday of September 2016. Sanchez was at the Baton Rouge airport early in the afternoon, waiting to board a plane to Atlanta. She was set to return later that night. She felt tired. Her body begged her to lie down. She was headed to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta for a chemotherapy session.
Afterward, she took a cab back to the Atlanta airport and slept on the plane to Baton Rouge. When she reached her dorm room, she dropped her bag on the floor and fell asleep.
On Tuesday morning, she was at practice. It was fall ball before her sophomore season. She had missed practice on Monday. To make up for it, she stayed late Tuesday through Friday.
Sanchez's lupus flared up, attacking her kidneys, following her freshman season. College softball -- SEC softball -- was a different kind of beast. She needed to perform at a much higher level, and her body was asking her to slow down. After another hospital stay over the summer, doctors ordered six sessions of chemotherapy to help her kidneys resume normal functions.
"It was hard for Shemiah's teammates to understand why she was getting tired, why she couldn't finish a certain routine during practice, but all of that changed during her chemo sessions," LSU coach Beth Torina said. "They recognized this was a big deal and that it required immense strength for Shemiah to fly back and make it to practice the very next day."
Seeing her succeed is one of those moments as a coach where you know you're doing the right job for the right reason.Beth Torina
"It is in your weakest moments that you become the strongest," Sanchez says. "That was my moment."
She changed her lifestyle. She started eating healthier, incorporating rice, beans and baked chicken into her meals. Lupus gave her rashes on her nose and cheeks when she was out in the sun, so she never stepped out without sunglasses and a hat. As she progressed from sophomore to junior year, she began to understand her body better.
"Miah has been through a lot, and I wanted to support her through it all," brother DeAngelo said. "After her lupus, I told her that if she decided to stick with softball, I would come out and support her and watch her be the best version of herself."
One of her favorite moments playing for LSU came when she hit a home run against Oregon at the 2017 Women's College World Series. She dreamed about hitting that home run in that exact spot the night before and even told her mom about it. She went from hitting two homers in 59 starts as a sophomore to hitting seven homers during her junior season, including a game-tying grand slam against Florida State in the super regionals.
When she was presented the "Eye of a Tiger" award for excellence in sports and academics in front of the university in August 2018, Shandria and Manuel sat in the crowd, sobbing and cheering at the same time.
As the Tigers' regular second baseman in 2019, Sanchez has been lethal. She has started in 50 of LSU's 55 games and has 45 RBIs and 34 runs scored.
"Seeing her battle for herself, seeing her battle for us ... I mean, she has just always battled for [the team], even though she's always had stuff she had to do for herself," Torina said. "Seeing her succeed is one of those moments as a coach where you know you're doing the right job for the right reason. So every moment of success for her is amazing for me."
A crowd has gathered at the end of the LSU dugout after the Alabama game. Kids holding posters, balls and signs are hanging on to the walls, waiting for selfies and autographs. Parents stand behind them on the grass, phones in hand, clicking pictures.
Sanchez walks across the field. The scoreboard, incidentally -- and appropriately -- changes from the score (LSU fell to Alabama 7-0) to LSU's slogan, "Fight all the Way." Sanchez starts from the beginning of the pack and makes her way through the gathering of kids. She stops, smiles at each of them, poses for their selfies and signs their memorabilia.
Her family has gathered on the other end of the stadium. One of her aunts is wearing sunglasses even though it's past 8 p.m. She doesn't want people to see her tears. Manuel is wearing a tiger mask on his head. DeAngelo is slightly hoarse after spending the game cheering for the team, especially his sister.
The family is supposed to go out for dinner when Shemiah is finished meeting, greeting and signing. But Shandria decides she's going to take her daughter home instead.
"That girl will never open her mouth and tell you she is tired, but I can see it in her face," Shandria says. "That's the thing with lupus, you can never tell. All I can do is make sure she gets enough sleep."
"Hell, no. It's a pride thing," Shemiah says. "I will play through the fatigue, but you won't hear 'I am tired' from me."
She knows this is bigger than her. This is not just about her and her fight against lupus. It is about showing kids that they can "rise again," that nothing can stop their dreams.
Before Saturday's game, DeAngelo hands out hundreds of balloons for lupus awareness. They're released when his sister's name is called during introductions. On Sunday, she took the field for her final regular-season game.
Shemiah Sanchez already has plans for after her time at LSU: She wants to play for the Puerto Rican national team (her father is from Puerto Rico) and qualify for the 2020 Olympics. And if she can dream that big, she wants kids to see that they can do the same thing.
"Miah is magic, man," DeAngelo says. "And the world is seeing that now."