Following a liver transplant, Lea Sobieraski ’18 has found renewed hope and happiness in life as she plans for a promising future.
Overcoming adversity is a common theme in the world of sports. At Daemen College, look no further than Lea Sobieraski as an example of an athlete succeeding despite great personal challenges. A 2018 Daemen graduate and recent graduate assistant in the Office of Athletics Communications, Sobieraski has overcome not one but two personal tragedies to have a thriving life today and to be considered one of the best up-and-coming professionals in the industry.
A graduate of SUNY Geneseo and former basketball student-athlete, Sobieraski had her world turned upside down in December 2012 when she was diagnosed with Wilson’s Disease, a rare disorder that causes copper to accumulate in vital organs. Little did she know at the time that she was in for the fight of her life, and when the obstacle was conquered, life still had more to throw at her.
In the span of just two-and-a-half months after receiving her diagnosis, Sobieraski had gone from being a young, vibrant, passionate student-athlete to needing an organ transplant to live. At Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester on March 2, 2013, during an 11-hour surgery and despite only a 70 percent certainty from doctors that the transplant would work, Sobieraski received the liver that she so desperately needed.
In total, Sobieraski spent nearly 100 days in and out of the hospital after the surgery. It took more than a full calendar year before she returned to Geneseo on a full-time basis, doing so in summer 2014.
“The emotional toll was really, really brutal,” Sobieraski remembers. “Everyone else around me was moving forward in their lives, and I felt stuck. Once I began to feel better, I started to work toward getting back into basketball. The whole summer I was in Geneseo taking classes again and just trying to get back in some kind of shape to play basketball.”
Sobieraski appeared in all 30 games for Geneseo during the 2014–15 season, helping the Knights to a 25–5 record, a SUNYAC championship, and a trip to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16. She had stared death in the face, lived to tell the tale, and was now returning to some bit of normalcy. But life wasn’t done challenging Sobieraski and her teammates, coaches, and school.
She and her teammates got the 2015–16 season off to a fast start, winning nine of their first 13 games, including a 63–52 road win at SUNY Buffalo State on Jan. 16. The next day, the lives of everyone in the group changed forever when team co-captain Kelsey Annese was one of two Geneseo student-athletes found murdered at an off-campus home a few blocks from campus.
“I thought I had been through the hardest time of my life after going through the transplant ordeal, but the loss of Annese just didn’t make sense,” said Sobieraski.
Despite the shock of what had just happened, Geneseo coach Scott Hemer turned to Sobieraski and asked her to pull strength from her own challenges to lead the group on the court and in dealing with this tremendous loss. With the memories of Annese fresh in their minds, Sobieraski and her teammates went on to play in the SUNYAC title game again, and they received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Through it all, Sobieraski was the rock that her teammates needed, and her outlook resonates far beyond basketball.
After graduating from Geneseo in May 2016, Sobieraski spent the next two years working toward earning a master’s degree in executive leadership and change from Daemen, which she received in May 2018, and assisting in the Daemen Athletics Department.
“Every day I wake up is a good day,” she said. “Even the days when I’m not feeling my best, I just remind myself that I shouldn’t be here. Prior to these situations, I was your typical college athlete, getting up early to practice and preparing for games. I complained about things that don’t matter at all. Now I look at things differently. At Daemen, I was able to go to class and to work. Making that change in my mind from having to do something, to getting to do something was a big eye opener, but I believe it’s the right outlook.”
Sobieraski credits Daemen with giving her the opportunity to “learn about myself as a leader and a person. I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience where I could grow personally and professionally. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to pursue my degree at Daemen,” she said.
Today, Sobieraski is doing very well following her liver transplant and she is looking forward to her next step in life. “With everything that has happened in my life, I’ve learned to enjoy every moment and that life is too short to not pursue what makes you happy,” said Sobieraski, who has secured a position as director of basketball operations for the women’s team at Canisius College.