Sydnei Murphy performs better when she’s smiling.
But last year, smiling didn’t come easy for the Apex High track and field star.
In her junior year, she was taking as many Advanced Placement courses as possible, going to cheerleading practice after school, indoor track and field practice after that and squeezing in homework late at night. The next morning, she would repeat the cycle.
At 16, she was becoming one of the state’s best jumpers just a few months after picking up the sport. She won the state indoor long jump that season and has since added three more indoor titles and two outdoor titles.
On Saturday, Murphy will try to achieve another personal best by becoming a four-time state champion at the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A track and field championships at North Carolina A&T. Winning four individual 4A girls titles at one state meet is believed to have been done only twice.
Murphy will try to sweep the triple jump, long jump, 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash. Athletes can enter no more than four events.
But the success leading up to this moment has had consequences.
She has felt hostility from other athletes, and even her own classmates. It got to the point that she even tried to make some athletic feats look harder than they were, just to appease her critics.
By December 2013, her body had had enough of the perfect storm of stress. She missed two weeks of school with excessive tiredness, a fever, chills and other flu-like symptoms.
The girl who can do it all had done too much.
“It was hard to balance, but I wanted to do everything,” said Murphy, now 18. “I kind of had to learn the hard way.
“People can tell you all they want, that you can’t do it all, and I’m like ‘Why not? Maybe I can!’” Murphy said. “I was just running on empty, but I kept on going because there was always more to do. ... That was my sign that I needed to calm down, rest and prioritize.”
It was a lesson learned, allowing her smile to return today.
As outstanding as she is at track and field, it’s the means to an end for her future plans, and she has big plans.
She’s going to Duke University this fall on a full athletic scholarship for track and field. She is pushing aside an earlier desire to become an actress that earned her two small, credited roles in Hollywood.
She wants to make a difference. She wants to help children with cancer.
“I adore children,” she said. “They are my heart. They always make my day better.”
Murphy’s family and her other athletic interests have helped shape her into the explosive athlete she is today.
Sports are a big deal in the Murphy house, where her father, Lance, trains youth in track and field. Her mother, Colette, played softball at Kansas. Her oldest sister, Leea, played soccer at North Carolina, and another sister, Alexis, who runs at South Carolina, won the 100-meter dash for Apex in 2012.
Sydnei Murphy’s competitive side kicks in when she’s running. Veins pop out of her slender arms as she charges past other runners.
The smile leaves, only to return at the finish line.
“She can be very intense when the competition is on,” Lance Murphy said. “And because of that intensity, if you don’t monitor her and allow her to be more relaxed, she can burn herself out because of the intensity she competes at.”
Sydnei Murphy has been a cheerleader for her three years at Apex, and the sport’s gymnastics-like qualities translates well into her track and field events.
Apex coach Roy Cooper knew this when he asked Murphy, then a junior, to do the long jump as well as triple jump. Jumpers need to be sure-footed, something in common with tumbling. Her years of cheerleading made up for her inexperience, and she quickly became one of the state’s best.
“You take anybody who’s got that top-end speed, without even teaching them anything, if they run down the long jump runway and pick up their feet, they’re going to go a long ways,” Cooper said. “But with her gymnastics background, with the flexibility that she has, it didn’t seem to me it was going to be very difficult for her to learn how to jump.”
Going for four titles will push her physical limits. Four events makes for a long day, but Murphy says she’ll pace herself better than last year, when she won the long and triple jump, finished second in the 100 and tapered off with a sixth-place finish in the 200.
“The hardest event for me is the 200, and it’s last,” Murphy said. “But based on where my training is, it’s looking good.”
Helping children with cancer
Murphy is nothing if not a planner. The next five years are mapped out already.
She has a 4.2 GPA and wants to finish her undergraduate studies in three years at Duke by taking summer classes. If she can keep this pace and Duke redshirts her one year, she will be on her full scholarship for the first two years of medical school.
She also wants to join the CAPE program, which helps prepare undergraduate female athletes for medical school. The program for highly motivated athletes was the Blue Devils’ biggest selling point in recruiting Murphy. CAPE, which stands for Collegiate Athlete Pre-medical Experience, has a 100-percent acceptance rate into Duke University School of Medicine.
Over the last year, she’s shadowed pediatricians at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. She sat in on medical conferences and spent time with patients. In her fourth period this semester, she works with elementary school children. Last summer, she worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day helping young kids at a sports training facility.
When others learn what field she wants to get into, they show concern, she says. They tell her working with children who have cancer might be difficult.
But Murphy is undeterred.
“They’re going to be sick whether I’m a doctor or not, so I might as well try to help,” she said. “It’s not like I can go out there and heal every single one or cure every single kid. But if I can make their life in any way better while they’re here, while they’re in contact with me, then I feel like I had my purpose, like I’ve done my role.”
Her coach thinks Murphy’s personality is a natural fit for such a job because she can read people in delicate situations.
Dr. Josh Berkowitz, the chief resident of internal medicine and pediatrics who Murphy shadows at UNC-Chapel Hill, says she comes across as caring and compassionate.
“If she chooses to take all the ability that she has and direct her focus to the practice of medicine, then I really do think she has the potential to benefit a large number of patients going on into the future,” Berkowitz said.
Focusing on what’s important
Sydnei Murphy knew she was spreading herself thin.
She had been overwhelmed by schoolwork, her many obligations and could tell some of her peers had grown weary of her feats, posting negative comments online. It cascaded into her physical breakdown her junior year.
“If something came easy to me, they made me feel bad about it,” she said.
Her family stepped in with sound advice to help drown out the noise.
“Everybody goes through that – really caring what other people think,” Murphy recalled her family saying. “Trying to please everybody just makes you unhappy yourself.”
Lance Murphy made 3-by-5 index cards that said, “Is this getting me to my goal?” and placed them in Sydnei’s bookbag, on her mirror and on the fridge to help rein in her focus.
“Your intensity will work against you if you don’t control it,” he said. “Fire looks great in the fireplace. It looks terrible on the floor. She has that intensity, but it’ll burn at both ends and wear you out physically.”
It was a defining moment.
She began to manage her time better and focused on getting into a different head space.
“The thing we sometimes forget about truly gifted people is they are still humans,” Cooper said.
Murphy now makes no apologies if she does well.
In a home football game on Sept. 5, she sang the national anthem, cheered with her squad on the sideline and accepted her state championship ring at halftime. She doesn’t sing much but wanted to that night with her family in the stands.
She remains focused on her goals, but her mindset has adjusted, and track and field is kept in perspective.
“You will never see Sydnei with a shirt that says, ‘Track is life,’” Lance Murphy said. “God’s not going to ask you how many gold medals you got.”
If she falls short of four gold medals at Saturday’s 4A meet, she says she won’t be disappointed. She knows she’s already on her way to doing what she really wants to do with her life.
“I’m not going to be a Debbie Downer about it, because I know I have some really good competition,” Murphy said. “I’ll do my best and go out having as much fun as I did coming in.”
3 things to know about Sydnei Murphy
▪ She has a profile on IMDb.com, which lists acting credits in film and television. She is credited as Grace Allen in the animated film “Grace Running” and as an extra in an episode of “One Tree Hill.” She also was in Nickelodeon’s “How to Rock” and still gets residual checks worth $15 to $500. It wasn’t until her track recruiting started that she decided to put her acting career to rest and focus on becoming a doctor.
▪ She was in her sister Alexis’ age groups in youth track and corrected competitors who said they were going to win. “No you’re not, my sister is – but we can try to follow her!”
▪ She was interested in pediatric cardiology because of her family’s history with heart problems but changed to oncology after seeing the great treatment her grandmother got before she died of cancer in August. “We knew it was terminal, but the way the doctors handled is exactly what my goal was,” she said. “They couldn’t save it, they couldn’t get rid of it, but they made her feel better. They made her feel safe, and I was like ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’”