Duke track star Sydnei Murphy pulls double duty as cheerleader

Two-sport athlete thinks tumbling helps clear her mind for track

Dec 2, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Sydnei Murphy performs during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke won 96-80. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

DURHAM — During Duke’s early-season win over Southern University, one of the cheerleaders decided to take it easy.

“In one of the routines, I was supposed to do a standing tuck,” said junior cheerleader Sydnei Murphy. For those unfamiliar with tumbling, that’s a full backflip from a standing position.

It wasn’t happening on that night. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do a back handspring instead,’” Murphy recalled. “That’s where your hands touch, as opposed to not.”

Murphy had a good reason for deciding to take the safe route — she’d just finished a two-hour workout for Duke’s track team before heading over to Cameron and changing into a skirt.

The Apex native has earned All-ACC honors in long jump, 4×400 relay and set the Duke school record in 60-meter and 4×200 relay. She competes in 17 different events during the indoor season and 21 outdoor events.

Sydnei Murphy showing off a track medal following a third-place finish at Georgia Tech. (Photo courtesy of Sydnei Murphy)

As a high school senior, she was named the top female track athlete in North Carolina, sharing the honor with the men’s winner — NC State-bound Nyheim Hines. And like Hines, she decided that one collegiate sport just wasn’t going to be enough.

For the last two years, Murphy has been a member of Duke’s cheerleading squad, performing at Blue Devils football and basketball games.

“I did it in high school,” Murphy explained. “When I got recruited for track, I asked the coach if I could do both. He said he’d be open to the opportunity.”

She spent her freshman year focusing on track, partly because she didn’t know when cheerleading tryouts were. At the end of the year, however, she got her chance to moonlight.

“A friend who’s on the cheer team said, ‘Hey, if you still want to do it, tryouts are tonight at 6.’ It was like 5:45, so I ran over there.”

Coach Alayne Rusnak said, “Try out and we’ll see.”

Despite the lack of prep time — Murphy said she had just enough time to run down to the track locker room and change into workout clothes — the tryout went well.

“She showcased skilled gymnastics and was a quick study picking up the choreography,” Rusnak said. “Sydnei had a strong presence and was not intimidated by the environment or the stress of tryouts.”

When Murphy was done, Rusnak told her, “Let’s make this work.”

It hasn’t been easy. For the game against Southern, Murphy had to reschedule her individual workout with a coach to earlier in the day. The following day, for Duke’s 3:30 p.m. football game against Georgia Tech, she had a two-hour full-team workout until 1, meaning she’d have to arrive at Wallace Wade a little later than the rest of the cheerleaders.

“Both coaches have been super flexible,” Murphy said, although Rusnak calls the schedule changes to accommodate her track commitments “only minor adjustments.”

Unfortunately, the juggling act can only go on for so long. Track meets start midway through the ACC portion of basketball season. At that point, Murphy will have to leave the cheer team to focus on competition. “Track is my main priority here, so I have to be smart about cheerleading,” she said.

Of course, there’s also the argument that, by dividing her time between the two sports instead of focusing full-time, she’s hurting her track performance.

“My coaches definitely think so,” she said with a laugh, “but I don’t think I do. I think the tumbling and jumping factor of it just always makes me feel more athletically inclined. I just feel more ‘on’ when I can throw a back tuck at the drop of a hat.”

“It’s also a break,” she added. “Because you can get pretty sucked into your sport in college, doing nothing but. It’s a release. It’s a time away from track, so I can clear my head and refocus when I’m actually there.”

And, if cheering doesn’t give her enough time away, she’s also a double-major who was named Academic All-ACC, and she sings and acts in her free time. In addition to having her own IMDB page for TV and movie extra work she’s done, she won a role in the school musical, although she ended up having to pass on it because she couldn’t fit it into her schedule of games and meets — something that still frustrates her, long after the fact.

She also needed to sell her track coaches on the risk of injury presented by cheering.

“It’s a risk we’re all willing to take,” she said. “We don’t stunt (where cheerleaders are thrown into the air), which I think is why my coach is OK with me doing this. I’m not putting my health in someone else’s hands. Tumbling’s pretty much all up to me.”

In fact, when the track coaches come to watch her cheer, there’s only one thing that bothers them.

“Their biggest complaint is when we do the kicks, my toes are pointed,” Murphy said. “They’re supposed to be flexed in track. It’s like, ‘You’re not worried about me flipping through the air. You’re worried about me pointing my toes!’ Besides, flexed toes are ugly.”

Time management is a challenge for any student-athlete, and the stress can get to Murphy.

“Absolutely!” she said emphatically. Luxuries — like sleep or actually sitting down to eat a meal — have to be sacrificed for the sake of time management. “I just grab something and eat on the go,” she said.

Murphy estimates that the last time she was able to just sit around with absolutely nothing to do was December break last year, and that was only because Duke didn’t go to a bowl game. This December, she’ll likely have to fit a trip to Detroit for the Quick Lane Bowl into her busy schedule.

In her eyes, though, it’s all worth it, “Just takes a lot of coffee and a lot of Jesus,” she said.