CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A remarkable friendship between two Charlotte women – both champion gymnasts at the University of Georgia - takes an unexpected turn linking two families forever.
Courtney Zuniga and Leah Brown have a cherished bond.
"Our families will forever be linked," Zuniga says.
Brown adds, “We’re family, we're family. Everyone talks about the different kinds of families- we don’t have a label but were family.”
Courtney explains where it all started, "Leah and I were both gymnasts at the University of Georgia."
Leah was at UGA first – Courtney ten years behind - she remembers being in middle school and looking up to Leah.
"She was amazing – she was an amazing gymnast."
Both women were champion college gymnasts.
They met through the team alumni program and grew close once Leah moved to Charlotte and they both lived in the same city.
Courtney had been building her family – when she married her husband, Albert, she gained two step-daughters.
“I didn’t know I could love a child I didn’t give birth to until I experienced becoming a stepmother and my love for them showed me we could adopt and expand our family in other ways.”
The couple then had two biological children- and adopted two more.
“It’s truly no different for you whether they’re biological adopted, or thru marriage, they’re all our children,” she says.
Leah was in the military – serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She then came home to build an orthopedic surgery practice – and a family with her husband, John.
But after three miscarriages the couple started to think about other ways of having a family.
Brown remembers, “I kind of had the reality, the coming to terms: I don’t know if this is going to work – but she looked at her friend’s family and had an epiphany. Watching Courtney’s process with adoption and understanding there's so many ways to be a mother.”
Though she never imagined this way…
Courtney says she remember the moment she looked at her friend and offered to carry her children. "I think I just said: 'Leah, if it comes down to it, I’ll carry your baby.'"
Leah was shocked, “It was genuine and I was taken aback by the offer – I'm like: Wow, that’s an amazing gift.”
Courtney was Leah and John’s gestational carrier.
“She carried embryos belonging to my husband and I – my egg, his sperm, her uterus and for all of that to work required a lot of medical intervention.”
There was only one shot. There were only two healthy embryos and doctors implanted both.
“I don’t know why I just felt like it was going to work out," Courtney sad. "I would carry two full term and I remember telling her, 'Let's do both.'”
She managed to make it full term.
“Wardell was born first.”
Forty minutes passed.
“And I delivered Eva and she was healthy and it was just a big sigh of relief. Everyone was healthy – they were both here.”
Leah said, “It was magical, it was a magical process.”
Courtney adds, “We’re all connected and I think people always say it takes a village – I think it makes life so much richer.”