Sydnei Murphy was happy right where she was at Cameron Indoor Stadium, with a wide smile and boundless energy emanating from her athletic frame.
In her black cheerleader uniform, the sophomore stepped onto the floor and soared through the air in a smooth backflip, sticking the landing near the visitors’ bench before she bounded back to her teammates stretching on the baseline. Duke was preparing to face William & Mary in men’s basketball the day before Thanksgiving, and Murphy was in her element, tumbling and performing for the crowd.
“I’m always the happy, bubbly, positive, jumping around the room, energetic type,” Murphy said. “I ooze spirit.”
She is happy being a cheerleader, but it is not the primary reason she came to Duke. The Apex, N.C., native was recruited to run fast, jump far and win championships for the track and field team, arriving last year with lofty expectations for her career.
Track was Murphy’s first love, and it became clear early on that she excelled in that area. She won seven North Carolina state championships at Apex High School in the long jump, triple jump and indoor 55-meter dash and was named the Raleigh News & Observer’s high school female athlete of the year after her senior year in 2014-15.
“I’m competitive to a fault,” Murphy said. “I love being in the heat of the moment in an adrenaline rush, which is why I love racing, I love having somebody next to me.”
Although she redshirted most of her freshman year at Duke when a stomach illness kept her from training for much of the winter, she will enter this season in the running to be one of the Blue Devils’ best sprinters ever.
“I think that she will break the school record in all of the short sprints,” associate head coach Shawn Wilbourn said. “Long-term, the triple jump I think is her best event. I think she could be a potential NCAA champion in the triple jump by her senior year, if she commits to it.”
But Murphy has never been one to commit all her time to one sport.
She grew up playing soccer and basketball in addition to running track, but soccer season moved from the fall to the spring in high school, leaving her with nothing to do in the fall.
Murphy initially wanted to join the volleyball team, but tryouts were at the same time as nationals for track during the summer. The next best option was cheerleading, which she wound up doing for all of high school.
“My family was actually very against it. They were like, ‘What are you doing? We do sports. We’re athletic. Go be an athlete,’” Murphy said. “Now, they’re all very on board.”
Although Murphy put her pompoms away for her first year at Duke, she remained the self-proclaimed cheerleader of the track team.
She even wore a cheerleader costume to the team’s Halloween practice last year. So when a friend who was a cheerleader in her dance class texted her the day of tryouts in April, she decided to go on a whim.
Most cheerleaders at Duke start on the White squad for a year, performing at women’s basketball games and home football games as they learn the songs and choreography. Then, they may move up to the Blue squad, which handles home and neutral site men’s basketball games, all football games and postseason games for both sports.
Head cheerleading coach Alayne Rusnak—who arrived at Duke in 2007—said that before Murphy came along, only two women had bypassed the White squad and went straight to the Blue squad during her tenure. Murphy was so impressive with her athleticism and tumbling skills in tryouts that she became the third.
“She adds a spark to the program,” Rusnak said. “She’s bright-eyed and excited to learn and you can just tell she’s genuinely very happy to be there.”
Juggling the two commitments has been overwhelming at times.
Murphy has just one day off and 20 hours of track practice per week in addition to cheerleading practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. There is also cheerleading practice for about two hours before every game.
During a particularly hectic week, she woke up Thursday, Nov. 10, went to Duke Hospital to do research in the Tisch Brain Tumor Center at 8:30 a.m.—Murphy is a pre-med student majoring in cultural anthropology in her spare time—then had two classes, went to an afternoon track practice and then had to get ready for the football game against North Carolina that night.
Murphy left Wallace Wade Stadium at midnight and was back on the track eight hours later for a Friday morning practice, then had three straight classes before track practice again in the afternoon. She quickly changed into her cheerleading uniform for the season’s first men’s basketball game that night, went to sleep late again, woke up for a Saturday morning track practice and then cheered at another basketball game Saturday night.
She admits she does not get as much sleep as her track coaches would like and gets by with the help of a lot of coffee, but Murphy is never lacking energy and enthusiasm at cheerleading or track practice, even though most are in the evening after long days of class and before long nights of homework.
“She’s one of the bubbliest people I’ve ever met,” junior sprinter Maddy Price said. “For her to be able to do two things that she absolutely loves at a high-level, elite school is just such a huge accomplishment and so amazing for her.”
Murphy’s time as a cheerleader is winding down for this year, though, and there is no guarantee she will be back on the sidelines next fall.
The start of the spring semester in January ushers in the start of indoor track season, when she will have to put her budding cheerleading career on hold for the rest of basketball season and focus exclusively on track.
If she doesn’t deliver the desired results on the track, her coaches may decide to intervene next year.
“If it looks like she was able to manage it and still perform at the high level that we recruited her for, then we’ll allow her to do it again,” Wilbourn said. “It’s kind of an experiment this year. We’ll see how she does in track.”
For now, Murphy is enjoying her busy schedule. She can channel the fun-loving, free-spirit side of her personality as a cheerleader in the fall, and she will get the adrenaline rush of racing and competing against athletes from across the nation in the spring.
“I am not in any position to complain about a late night, because this is literally what I dreamed of,” Murphy said. “I never, ever regret doing both.”
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