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From midfield to airfield: Duke women's soccer's Sydney Simmons' journey as a pilot

Sydney Simmons standing with her FAA examiner, holding her new private pilot certificate.
Sydney Simmons standing with her FAA examiner, holding her new private pilot certificate.

If you’ve tuned into any Duke women’s soccer broadcast this year, you may have already heard that junior midfielder Sydney Simmons is now a licensed pilot. But the story of how that came about includes some strange twists.

Simmons came to Durham in 2018 as the No. 68 recruit in the country and ended her freshman year as a full-time starter and member of the All-ACC freshman team. But she tore her Achilles on the first day of practice the next year, and just as her rehab process was ending, COVID-19 struck, sending her home with none of the support that was supposed to help her re-acclimate to the sport. 

Though the lockdown complicated Simmons' recovery, it allowed her to focus on her family's pastime: flying. Both her parents are licensed pilots, and the additional free time this spring and summer allowed Simmons to get a private license herself.

“I've always watched [my parents] share that passion together,” Simmons said. “And both of my older sisters have also soloed, but they weren't able to complete their license, and so it's something that all five people in my family are able to share. I think it's a way that we've been able to make a lot of special memories together. And now I'm excited that I'll be able to share that passion with my friends and my future family, just like I was able to grow up with it myself.”

Sydney's parents Kent and Kristin Simmons actually met in a flight degree program, instilling the love of flying in their three daughters, Sydney, Chelseigh and Carleigh. While Kristin stayed home with the kids, Kent experienced the booms and busts of an industry whose workforce was destabilized by a mass firing in 1981.

The Simmons family owned a Cessna-152, a two-seater plane, for recreational use. As the girls grew up, Kent and Kristin introduced them to their passion when time would allow. It was the foundation laid within that Cessna-152 that would lead Chelseigh into engineering, bring Carleigh into naval engineering and foster a lifelong love for flying in Sydney.

It wasn’t always clear that this was the direction Sydney Simmons would be able to go in. The demands of high school years and an increasingly competitive soccer career meant less time in the air, and what little time there was at home between semesters was never enough for her to get her license. 

But then came quarantine, and Sydney was looking at the most time she’d ever have at home.

“[Chelseigh’s family] lives in Austin,” Kent Simmons said. “[So] they were quarantined in Austin, and we were quarantined here [in Van Alstyne, Texas]. Daughter two, Carleigh, they told her she needed to work from home, and she immediately said, 'Can I work from mom and dad's home?' And they said sure. So she came home really the same time Sydney did…and was here for, I feel like it was about two months, but I don't remember. So I was teaching the two of them together and they were studying together.”

Unlike her sisters, Sydney has no plans to get into engineering. She’s always wanted to go into the medical field, and is planning on going to dental school after she gets her undergraduate degree.

For her, flying is more about cruising and relaxation. Kent, always restless, was big on outdoor activities with the girls when they were growing up. Sydney still likes to hike, but what she finds in the air is simply incomparable.

“A lot of people go up in an airline, but you're so high that you don't really see the details that you can catch when you're only at 3,500 feet above the ground,” Sydney said. “So you kind of see the wheat fields swaying in the air, you're noticing which way the wind is blowing just by looking at the ripples in the pond. Noticing how spectacular the world is from a different view, that's probably one of the coolest parts. And then a sunset never looks better than in the air.”

The way she talks about flying, Sydney is sure to be an active pilot for years. And as she continues to solo, she’ll always be reminded of the people that introduced her to that lifelong passion: her family.

“Being apart from them for two years now made that time [at home during quarantine] much sweeter,” Sydney said, “just because it's been so long since I've been with them and [that] we've been together as a family.”


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