Commentary

Cornell's Maduka sets standard for dual-sport student-athletes

Originally Published: July 29, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

ITHACA, N.Y. -- You won't find any record of the jump that left Mike Powell's mouth agape while looking on at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Arkansas last spring. Cornell long jumper Jeomi Maduka missed the board by perhaps the length of a toe, and so the graceful explosion that subsequently propelled her through the air and into the pit never happened, at least according to the official results.

[+] EnlargeJeomi Maduka
Patrick Shanahan Jeomi Maduka was highly recruited for track and field, but found her heart was in basketball.

Good luck convincing either Powell or Cornell men's track coach Nathan Taylor it was a mirage.

"I refused to believe it," Taylor said of his initial reaction watching the jump. "However, I was sitting right next to the current world-record holder in the men's long jump, and an Olympic champion, and he said, 'Oh my God, did you see that?'"

By Taylor's estimate, it was perhaps the longest jump by an American woman in more than a decade and would have ranked Maduka among the top handful of jumpers in the world this year. Even with the memorable foul, Maduka still jumped far enough in her recorded efforts to finish eighth overall and earn All-America honors as a result.

Not bad for a basketball player who is going to medical school and plays a mean violin.

Ivy League athletics offer no shortage of overachievers. The athletes are the products of a league that doesn't award athletic scholarships and in which keeping up in class can be more draining than keeping up with even the most diabolical preseason conditioning regimen. And yet even against that backdrop, Maduka stands out from her peers. The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year in women's basketball also made it to the last round of the women's long jump at the U.S. Olympic trials as one of eight finalists vying for a trip to Beijing. And as best as anyone in Ithaca can tell, she was the first athlete to participate in two NCAA championships in the same season, leading the Big Red to the NCAA tournament in basketball a week after her jumps in Arkansas.

Just for good measure, she pulled down a spotless GPA this spring en route to medical school.

To get a sense of exactly what we're dealing here, consider what Maduka, who alternated between training for the Olympic trials and studying for the Medical College Admission Test this summer, says about her perspective on life.

"I'm kind of pretty carefree," Maduka said. "I don't like to worry; it bothers me. Like, I don't want to worry about this MCAT test, so that's why I study every day, so I don't have to worry and so I feel confident with what I learned that day."

Sure, that's about how Jeff Spicoli would define carefree, right?

Women's basketball coach Dayna Smith, who resurrected a moribund program and led the Big Red to their first NCAA tournament last season, fares a little better in pinning down a person with a unique work ethic and set of objectives.

"She's a humble person," Smith said. "You would never know the kind of accolades she gets or how well she does in a certain event. She's just one of the players; she has a great sense of humor. She works really hard on her academics. If she's not jumping or she's not playing basketball, she's studying."

A desire to do all of the above is what brought Maduka to Cornell, one of the only schools willing to let her play both sports. More highly regarded as a track and field recruit than a basketball recruit coming out of Texas -- she took up basketball seriously around seventh grade, long after she had started competing with local track teams -- the sport many colleges wanted her for wasn't necessarily her first love.

"When I got older, my love for track -- I just really liked basketball a lot more," Maduka said. "And it's so weird, coming to Cornell and becoming so much better at track. My marks have improved so much, and I think that's what has motivated me. That's what got me to fall back in love with track, and I'm glad that it happened. Because I know in high school, I did not consider running track in college until Cornell started recruiting me."

Maduka made it clear to assistant coach and recruiter Rich Bowman on her official visit that she wanted to play both sports. Instead of getting the typical cold shoulder that request brought from many schools, she found Bowman completely amenable. He even took her over to the basketball offices and left her there to talk with that program's coaching staff. Three years later, she still recalled the quintessential Ithaca drizzle and chill that accompanied that autumn trip to the remote upstate New York campus, but the warm reception her plan received from the two coaching staffs sold her on the school.

[+] EnlargeJeomi Maduka
Stockton Photo The reigning Ivy League player of the year has found a balance between playing two sports in one season and keeping up a 4.0 GPA.

Taylor is the head men's track and field coach at Cornell, while Lou Duesing runs the women's program. But it's Taylor, a former jumper himself at the University of Richmond, who works most directly with Maduka on the long jump and triple jump. For him, getting some of her time was better than none of her time.

"I'm not such an egomaniac that I feel like I need to micromanage kids' lives and make decisions for them on not just a daily basis, but a long-term basis," Taylor said. "You know, if someone's goals are to rid the world of cancer and take care of deserted animals, why should I say, 'Well, you can only do the animals; you can't do the cancer.' It's ridiculous. We wouldn't do it in any other facet of our lives, so I look at it and say, 'Why do it here?' If she's happy with that, with the status quo, then that's fine."

Not that coaches who require the exclusive attention of their athletes lack for legitimate reasons to frown upon multisport participation. Just because Taylor, Duesing and Smith were open to sharing Maduka's time didn't mean that things worked out seamlessly.

Smith had little prior experience with two-sport athletes and was initially surprised at the extent of the demands placed on Maduka's schedule by the indoor track season that ran concurrently to Smith's own season. Split between two practice schedules, Maduka was able to spend only a few days a week with either sport. Lab work cost her still more practice time. So while she led the Big Red in points, rebounds and steals as a freshman and a sophomore, she also missed three games her first year and six games her second and said she sometimes found it difficult to find common ground with teammates who didn't understand all the absences.

"It was tough; I think we'd all be lying if we said it was easy from the start," Smith said. "She has done a better job of kind of keeping a good balance. … When she's with basketball, she is with us and she is working her butt off. And when she's with track, she's with track and she's working her butt off. I think her freshman year, you couldn't really say that. I think her freshman year was a little bit of a difficult transition for her. And rightly so -- she's premed, away from home as a freshman in college and she's playing two sports. I think it was pretty tough for her to juggle all that."

She missed just one basketball game last season, a late-season game at Harvard that coincided with the biggest track meet of the season -- a competition in Ithaca that she traveled to by way of Hanover, N.H., where she had played with the basketball team the previous night against Dartmouth. And even if Maduka isn't sure she's looking at the world through quite the same lens as they are, teammates from both sports are now frequent spectators when she competes in whichever is the "other" sport at the time.

"What I find amazing is she never complains," Smith said. "She doesn't come in with excuses that she's tired or she just doesn't feel like doing something today. She's fully committed. She has her bad days; she has her days where you can see fatigue setting in. But she never uses either sport as a crutch or her major as a crutch. She had over a 4.0 in premed this semester while she's doing both sports and excelling in them."

Both coaches admit they wonder just how good she could be if she focused solely on one sport. They're not alone. Maduka occasionally wonders the same thing, but only occasionally. She doesn't have much time for hypothetical conundrums.

"I think it would just be weird having so much time where I'm not practicing or I'm not going to some competition," Maduka said. "That would be odd."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.