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'Jada Strong': Teenager offers an indomitable spirit for Gators Lacrosse

Jada Turner, 15, forms a heart with her hands along the sideline prior to the Florida Gators annual ‘Jada Strong’ game on March 23. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)
Jada Turner, 15, forms a heart with her hands along the sideline prior to the Florida Gators annual ‘Jada Strong’ game on March 23. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

In her 15 seasons as head coach of the University of Florida’s lacrosse program, Amanda O’Leary has seen hundreds of players come through the locker room at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

Not one, she said, comes close to matching the energy and charisma of Jada Turner.

Jada has never once suited up for the Gators, but her impact can be felt throughout the program. At 15 years old, Jada has dealt with more than her fair share of adversity.

Her journey began in August 2018 when Jada, then 8, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and given a 30% chance to live. The girl fighting for her life soon found a team to fight alongside her.

Thanks to her mother, Stephanie Smith, Jada joined Friends of Jaclyn, a New York-based organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with local teams, clubs and arts programs through its Adopt-A-Child initiative.

Mutual connections between Friends of Jaclyn and UF lacrosse allowed O’Leary’s squad to “adopt” Jada in February 2019. She has been a constant presence ever since.

“Her attitude, her positive outlook on life — I just can't say enough about her as a person,” O’Leary said. “What she's brought to this program are things that we could never teach.”

Jada has battled through two relapses of leukemia and three bone marrow transplants, making her the only current pediatric survivor of a trio of such surgeries in the state of Florida, according to Smith. The Tifton, Georgia, native is currently in remission and receives her treatments in Jacksonville.

Jada endured her first rounds of chemotherapy at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where mother and daughter first met O’Leary through Friends of Jaclyn in December 2018.

Florida lacrosse head coach Amanda O’Leary, left, and Jada Turner have enjoyed a close relationship ever since the program “adopted” Turner back in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Amanda O’Leary)
Florida lacrosse head coach Amanda O’Leary, left, and Jada Turner have enjoyed a close relationship ever since the program “adopted” Turner back in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Amanda O’Leary)

O’Leary gifted Jada a stuffed animal. She realized then the girl was a fighter.

“Even as sick as she was, she still had a smile on her face,” O’Leary said. “You could just see how hurting she was but still so elated that we were going to be able to have this relationship.”

Once the Gators officially “signed” Jada, she fit in effortlessly with the athletes more than double her age. Jada and Smith have made the two-hour drive south to Gainesville countless times over the last five years to watch the Gators take the field. Every time, her 40 older sisters greet her with smiles and hugs and embrace her as one of their own.

“I love them,” Jada said. “I am super grateful for them staying by my side while I was going through my battle.”

For Liz Harrison, a senior on the team, Jada’s presence is a vibrant force on the field, one that brings light to her life: “She's so full of energy. She's so full of hope.”

Emily Heller is another tenured player who has watched Jada grow over her five years with the team. The graduate student said Jada brings the energy wherever she goes.

“She just always looks at the positive things,” Heller said. “There's obstacles, and then there's her obstacles … she's been through so much more than I've ever been.”

Defender Catherine Flaherty called Jada a firecracker who can often be seen bouncing all over the place in the locker room.

“You know it’s gonna be a good day when you see Jada in the locker room,” Flaherty said. “I wish she could be at every single game.”

Turner looks over the field at Donald R. Dizney Stadium as the Florida Gators take on the Old Dominion Monarchs for the annual "Jada Strong" game on March 23. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

Smith is most impressed by how long-lasting Jada’s relationships with individual players have been. Gators past and present still make the effort to keep in touch with Jada and check in on her progress.

“The relationships she's built with the team — they don't just go when the girls graduate,” Smith said. “It’s really a family.”

The memories made off the field have been just as important as the ones made in between the lines. Smith recalls players visiting Jada during her hospital stays and going out of their way to make her daughter feel loved.

Tori Bates is just one of the many players who have spent days with Jada at her bedside. For Bates, her relationship with Jada is especially powerful.

Bates was on the roster from when Jada arrived in 2019 through last season but spent the majority of her time bound to the sideline with a knee injury. It was there that the two bonded.

“(Jada) definitely gave me a whole other perspective during my recovery,” Bates said. “I think she allows us to play for something so much bigger than ourselves.”

Jada, who said she often felt lonely during her extended stays, looked forward to their visits.

Rounds of Wii Sports Tennis, Uno and Guess Who with her lacrosse sisters allowed Jada to pass the time. She claims to have won every game.

“Just to see her smile, her day was turned around … us being there really made a difference,” Bates said.

Bates made the trip from her hometown of St. Augustine to surprise Jada for the team’s annual “Jada Strong” game against Old Dominion on March 23, which Florida won 19-4. The Gators wore orange and blue “Jada Strong” t-shirts during warmups and announced her name on the stadium loudspeakers during team introductions.

The Gators wore ‘Jada Strong’ shirts during warmups and on the sideline during the game. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)
The Gators wore "Jada Strong" shirts during warmups and on the sideline during the game. (Ethan Eibe/WUFT News)

On the day that belonged to her, Jada bounded along the sideline. Dancing. Surviving. Living her best life. Her smile beamed brighter than the sunlight reflecting off her white sunglasses.

It’s a smile O’Leary uses to ground herself and remember to never take the little things for granted.

“She's given us way more than we've given her,” O’Leary said. “In all honesty, I couldn't imagine our program without her.”

Jada says the team has given her the motivation to fight on. Aside from being a cancer survivor, Jada is an eighth grader at Cook County Middle School in Adel, Georgia. She enjoys playing the saxophone, building Legos and reading. Smith says Jada will join the marching band when she reaches high school next year.

No matter what she’s doing, the Florida lacrosse team is fighting for her.

“I learned that I wasn't alone in my journey,” Jada said.

The Gators will continue to be the wind beneath her wings. They will walk with her every step of the way. They will always remember to be strong.

Jada Strong.

Ethan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.