February 16, 2006

Freshman Star A Rare Athlete

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Wake up. Brush your teeth. Get changed. Go to Barton Hall. Set a preliminary round-leading 7.78 in the 60-meter dash at the Robert J. Kane Invitational. Win the long jump with an ECAC-qualifying 18-8 1/2. Leave Barton. Prepare for the basketball game at 7 p.m. Score a career-high 29 points in a win over Yale.

This is a fairly typical day in the life of freshman basketball player and track star Jeomi Maduka. Just thinking about this type of frantic schedule – which took place for Maduka last Saturday – would make any normal college kid exhausted. But not Maduka.

“When you look at her and ask her if she’s O.K., she’s always like, ‘Yeah, I’m great, I’m ready,” said women’s basketball coach Dayna Smith. “She never, ever indicates that it’s too much or it’s too hard for her.”

While there are a few two-sport athletes at Cornell, the 6-2 Maduka, with her impressive ability on the court and on the track, has made a typical student’s “busy” schedule seem like a Cancun vacation. She competes in two varsity sports that overlap for most of their respective seasons. And to top it off? She’s a pre-med student.

“It’s been difficult at times,” Maduka said. “I guess the major difference is that in high school, I did the whole basketball season and then I did track, but here, I do it all the same time.”

Maduka is from warm and sunny Arlington, Texas, which is just outside of Dallas-Fort Worth. Her parents, Charles, a lawyer, and Gloria, a pharmacist, are Nigerian immigrants and Maduka is the oldest of five children. She wants to set a good example for her siblings, but admits she is competitive with her 17-year-old sister, whom she played hoops with in high school.

Because of her strong academic background as well as her obvious athletic talent, top programs including Duke, Princeton and Baylor recruited her for track. However, Cornell was the only school that left open the opportunity to participate in both track and basketball. Maduka subsequently came to Ithaca on a typical rainy and cold Homecoming day last year to meet with track coaches, before being introduced to the basketball staff.

The truth of the matter is, Maduka has made a spectacular impact as a freshman on both of her teams. Maduka consistently sets new personal-bests in the long jump, triple jump and short-distance sprints. This past Monday, she was given her sixth Ivy League Rookie of the Week honor as she leads the basketball team in points (14.9) and rebounds (8.2) per game.

Although Maduka downplays it, the transition to college and being a two-sport athlete has been fairly difficult. Every spare moment, Maduka is in the library trying to catch up on her work and she can never be found in her Mews Hall dormitory room.

Well, except when she’s sleeping.

She goes to bed in the wee hours of the morning and her sleep habits will probably get worse with prelims coming up.

“Especially for a freshman, [it’s very difficult] trying to make the transition academically [from high school],” said women’s track coach Lou Duesing. “The thing I worry about is people who don’t think it’s going to be a challenge [for her]. If they don’t, then they are going to get into trouble and there is no question that her first priority is her academics.”

And as Duesing points out, Maduka’s ravenous commitment and prioritizing of her schoolwork over athletic feats is an aspect that makes her especially unique.

“On the bus trip back from our [Dartmouth-Harvard series], the freshmen were talking about what they were going to be in 10 years,” Smith said. “[Jeomi] was talking about, ‘I don’t want to go to the Olympics, I don’t want to play in the WNBA and I don’t want to play professionally. I want to be a doctor and that’s what I want to do.’ For a kid to know what she wants so early, it’s [impressive].”

Because Maduka is only allowed to practice varsity sports 20 hours a week due to NCAA regulations, her coaches keep a schedule marked in pencil so that she does not break the rules. Maduka usually trains with track towards the beginning of the week, and joins the basketball squad in preparation for games. Since she cannot commit her whole schedule to one sport, her coaches know that there are areas she could work on more if she had more practice time, whether it is her jumping technique or her footwork around the paint.

“I think both coaches would’ve loved to have her full-time, but it’s something she wants to do and I know she’s really making a case for herself that she can handle both,” Smith said.

As for Maduka, she does not want to disappoint either set of coaches.

“I’m always worried about what they’re going to think, but they’re really understanding about it,” she said.

Last Saturday was an example of the precarious compromise between her pair of commitments.

“I originally thought I was going to be too tired to do anything because I had to jump and I had to run, but the coaches were really understanding about the fact that I had a basketball game that night,” said Maduka, who did not compete in the finals of any events that day. “[Assistant track] coach [Rich] Bowman told me, ‘Jeomi, just go get ready for your game.'”

For the foreseeable future, it seems as if Maduka will continue to balance the load of two sports, as well as the strenuous academics that Cornell offers. Duesing and Smith both assert that Maduka is doing a terrific job in handling all of the responsibility.

“Because this is her first experience, she’s trying to work her way through it and when the dust settles in May, we’ll sit down and talk about it and see what worked well and what didn’t work and what we might try next year,” Duesing said.

For now, Maduka is taking things day by day. There is no doubt that a part of her wishes she had more time to hang out with her friends or play Beethoven on the violin to relax (she won several music awards before college, by the way). A part of her misses the warm weather of Texas and her often hectic home, where she could only stay for a few days during winter break because of the basketball team’s games. A part of her also wishes she could sleep more.

She’s self-admittedly shy, but according to coaches, is also disciplined, confident and likeable.

“I joke with her often that she’s sweet and innocent but the players tell me otherwise,” Smith quipped. “They say they know the true her.”

And on the court and track, both coaches see the true Jeomi – as a fierce competitor.

“When you see her line up on the runway and see the expression [on her face], I know her performance is going to be of high quality,” Duesing said.

Because of her talents, the expectations on Maduka’s shoulders are subsequently heavy for such a young athlete. Her coaches hope she helps them build on their respective programs and Maduka wants to do all of that, with another chief aim.

“I really want to get into a good medical school so I need a really good GPA,” said Maduka, who aspires to be a pediatrician. “That’s my first goal.”

On Monday, she woke up early, replied to email from a reporter at 7:31 a.m., went to her 8:00 a.m. class, studied at the library and met with that same reporter at 11:30 in Trillium. After they spoke for about 30 minutes, she took out a binder with a notebook inside and opened it.

“You’re staying around here?” the reporter asked.

“Yeah, I have to do this stats homework due on Wednesday,” she replied.

Just another typical day in the life of Jeomi Maduka.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao