On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a college All-American named Sydney packed up her things and left track practice at the University of Kansas Anschutz Pavilion. Standing near an indoor running track, she slipped on a pair of flip-flops, swung a small backpack on her shoulders and set off through a maze of hallways inside Kansas’ Wagnon-Parrott Athletic Center.
Just four days earlier, Sydney had won the long-jump event at the Rock Chalk Classic meet in Lawrence with a personal-best jump of 6.57 meters (21 feet, 63/4 inches) — the third-best women’s long jump in the country this season. It was the latest benchmark moment for a 5-foot-9 college junior who has twice earned All-American status, finished runner-up in the Big 12 long-jump event and is one of the favorites to win an NCAA long-jump title this June.
At this point, of course, you might be wondering if Sydney has a last name, and this is where it gets complicated. Because it’s only when you hear Sydney’s last name that this story, for better or worse, ceases to be about her own athletic endeavors and accomplishments.
“I’m used to it,” she said.
In the interest of presenting all of the facts, here is where we disclose that Sydney’s full name is Sydney Conley, little sister of NBA point guard Mike Conley, daughter of Olympic gold medalist Mike Conley Sr. This is the moment where Sydney Conley discloses that in more than five years of doing interviews about her promising track career, she’s never once had an interview where a reporter didn’t bring up her brother or her dad.
“If this was the first one,” she said, smiling, “this would be the first.”
Conley is not complaining, of course. It’s just that, well, it can be difficult to establish your own identity when everything you do is compared back to your family.
Still, being the daughter of an Olympic champion triple-jumper comes with certain advantages — and not just the genetic kind. Conley, the second youngest of four children, grew up near Indianapolis in a family where the calendar was dictated by the sports seasons. The family hoofed it to AAU basketball tournaments and track meets. They held family competitions in the driveway and backyard. They journeyed to the Final Four in 2007, when Mike Conley Jr. and Greg Oden led Ohio State to the NCAA championship game.
“I didn’t quite understand the significance then,” said Sydney Conley, who was in seventh grade at the time. “I just wanted to go home and hang out with my friends.”
Part of this, perhaps, was intentional. Her father, Conley says, was always hands-off when it came to her own athletic aspirations. Mike Conley Sr. had claimed gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. But he never wanted to force track and field on his daughter. And in a way, he didn’t have to. From the beginning, her father says, it was clear Sydney Conley had inherited the family’s competitive gene.
“She hates to lose,” he said. “If I beat her in something, I would be afraid she was going to attack me.”
While Mike Conley Jr. began his NBA career after one season at Ohio State, the rest of the family relocated back to Fayetteville, Ark., where Mike Conley Sr. had been an All-American track athlete in the 1980s. Sydney Conley excelled in high school basketball and track, earning Division I looks in both sports. But much to her father’s delight, she always felt most comfortable on the track.
“It’s really cool when they love it themselves,” Mike Conley Sr. said, “and they have the same passion for it as you did.”
By her senior year of high school, Sydney Conley had her pick of Division I track programs. But her college choice was colored by a major factor.
“It’s college,” Conley said. “You want to get away from family.”
That put Kansas, coached by Stanley Redwine, at a distinct disadvantage. Redwine was a former college track teammate of Mike Conley Sr. at Arkansas, and the two had become even closer when they ended up marrying sisters. For Sydney Conley, Redwine was not just another college coach offering a scholarship. He and aunt Jacqueline were family. So when she initially chose to attend Alabama, she dialed her uncle and made one of the hardest phone calls of her life.
“I was scared, shaking,” Conley said. “But he took it for what it was.”
Her plans changed when an academic issue ruled out Alabama. She instead headed to Kansas, where she competed on a women’s team that would win the NCAA outdoor championship in 2013. That year, in a KU program with All-American long jumpers Andrea Geubelle and Francine Simpson, Conley had to wait her turn.
“She’s a raw talent,” said KU assistant coach Wayne Pate, who specializes in the horizontal jump events. “Sydney always got away with jumping without knowing why or how. So she got away with her talent.”
Pate believes in a simple formula. As freshmen, KU jumpers work on building strength. The next year, they focus on technique. As juniors, they build speed. Then they put it all together. Conley is in year three of the progression, Pate says, and it’s starting to blend together. Not that it’s perfect. During the indoor season earlier this year, Conley focused so much on building and controlling her speed that she failed to reach the NCAA indoor championships in the long jump.
It was a disappointing moment, she says, but it also stoked her competitive fire entering the outdoor season.
“OK,” Conley remembered thinking. “Now I got to kill it.”
A year ago, Conley missed out on a Big 12 long-jump championship by centimeters before finishing seventh at the NCAA outdoor championships. This week, she’ll look for redemption at the Big 12 outdoor championships — which begin Friday in Ames, Iowa — before taking aim at an NCAA outdoor title June. For the moment, Pate believes Conley is just starting to scratch the surface on her potential.
“I just want to jump far,” Conley said. “I don’t want to put a number on me.”
Conley, meanwhile, has learned to embrace the expectations that come with her last name. Just days after setting a PR in the long jump, she sat inside her apartment and watched Mike Conley Jr., eight days removed from facial surgery, lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a victory over the Golden State Warriors in game two of the Western Conference semifinals.
At other times, Sydney Conley says, she’ll pull up old YouTube clips of her father competing in big meets, comparing her style and technique to his. In certain moments, at just the right angle, they can look identical.
“Like twins,” Conley said.
“The word is, she looks like me with hair,” Mike Conley Sr. added. “She looks better running than I do, though.”