Flight of Phoenix
Rising from the Ashes of Personal Tragedy, Phoenix Duncan Soars to New Heights
By Doug Goodnough
She was named after a mythical bird that arises to new life from the ashes of its predecessor.
An orphan at the age of 16 after watching both of her parents die from drug- and alcohol-related liver diseases, Phoenix Duncan had a decision to make. Was she going to follow the same self-destructive lives of her parents, or would she overcome her painful past?
The 19-year-old Siena Heights sophomore has answered that question emphatically. Not only is she a dean’s list student who is headed for a career in nursing, Duncan is also rising above the competition as a high jumper on the women’s track team. In fact, in three NAIA national championship meets, she has finished runner-up all three times and already is one of the unquestioned leaders on campus.
Dealing with Death
Duncan and her older brothers were in foster care when they got the word their father was dying of liver failure due to years of drug and alcohol abuse. She was just 10 years old.
“We just got a call that he had passed away during the night,” said Duncan, who knew her father was dying but was still caught off guard by the news. “Having this mindset of ‘OK, we’ll see him again,’ then all of a sudden (he died), it is just completely changing. That affects you.”
A month later, she and her siblings were back living with her mother, who was dealing with her own addiction issues. Family life was OK for awhile, but when her mother relapsed, Duncan also changed for the worse.
“It’s almost like, ‘OK, if you’re relapsing, then I’m also just going to be a rebel,’” Duncan said of her negative reaction to her mother’s struggles with addiction. “We were both going down the path where I was doing stupid things, she was doing stupid things. We were just neck-and-neck.”
During Christmas break more than three years ago, Duncan’s mother told her she was dying. Four days after Duncan’s 16th birthday, her mother passed away. But she said dealing with her mother’s dying and eventual death was a transformational experience.
“No more bad Phoenix,” she said of the 180-degree turn she made. “I didn’t have bad grades, but I didn’t have grades that were up to my potential. I just didn’t care. I wanted to prove to (my mother) that I was in control.”
Duncan was definitely in control, but moving in a much better direction.
“Once I realized how serious it was, that both of my parents were about to be out of my life, it was a transformation,” she said. “That’s when my attitude completely changed on life. I was more dedicated. You take everything one step at a time. You learn to appreciate things more.”
Her college coach, Kirk Richards, who entered the picture during Duncan’s senior year at Morenci High School, calls her “an old soul.”
“She’s mature because of what she’s gone through personally,” he said. “She didn’t let it bring her down. Some people try to escape that through addiction. Some try to escape it through other means, burying themselves in bad things. She learned from every bad experience, every hurtful experience.”
Jumping into Action
As an eighth-grader in Morenci, Mich., Duncan decided one day to try the high jump as a “joke.”
“I thought me being the race I am (African American), it would be funny to make a joke,” she said. “I’m black so I have to be able to jump. I jumped over the (high jump) bar and it was just a freak of nature that I had form without knowing at all how to jump.”
But her natural talent was no joke, and by her senior year, she was one of the best in the state in her division.
Richards, whose specialty is coaching jumpers and pole vaulters, was introduced to Duncan by Morenci’s track coach, and spent some time with Richards training indoors in the SHU Fieldhouse.
“The first time we met, I razzed her about how good she was and how good she wanted to be,” Richards said. “I’d razz her and she would razz me.”
However, Duncan made it clear that Siena Heights was not in her future college plans.
“I was dead set on (the University of) Michigan,” she said. “No one could tell me otherwise. I was going to Michigan because we had set up a plan there.”
Duncan had it all worked out. She was going to Michigan to compete in track and work on being a pediatric oncologist. Plus, one of her brothers had attended Siena and she wanted to do something different.
“He swore up and down he was going to recruit me,” she said of Richards. “I said, ‘No, you’re not going to recruit me.’”
However, Richards wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I forecasted how far a positive, ambitious and athletic person can go, and the sky is the limit,” he said. “(I said) ‘We are going to give you everything you need. … I think if you do this right it will be a very, very affordable for you to come (to Siena Heights). And I don’t know if another school is going to see that in you, but I do. This isn’t a gamble for me. This is a wise choice.’”
To prove his point, Richards sent a letter to Duncan detailing exactly what Siena Heights could do for her. Inside she discovered that Richards had put together a financial aid package for Duncan to think about. She did, and her plan soon changed.
“It covered more than what Michigan was going to cover for financial aid,” she said. “It was clear that (I was going to Siena Heights). This was the place for me.”
A Siena Sensation
Since arriving at Siena Heights, Duncan has been a rising star. During her freshman year, she competed for a national title in the high jump – twice. She lost in a jump off during indoor season to place second, and later in the season, again finished in the runner-up spot at the outdoor nationals. Along the way, she shattered SHU’s high jump record, setting a new mark of 5 feet, 10 inches at SHU’s inaugural Kleinow Memorial Invitational.
That mark was also good enough to earn a spot at the U.S. Junior Nationals at Indiana University last summer. The only jumper from an NAIA-level school at the 19-and-under meet, Duncan finished tied for sixth place.
In February, she again just missed a NAIA national title, finishing runner-up for the third time in as many tries. She is again poised to try for that elusive national title this May.
“It was definitely a good first learning experience of getting the title just literally taken from you,” she said of her close calls at nationals. “Of course you’re disappointed, but then you have to be optimistic about it. I was second in the nation as a freshman. … I wanted the title, but I’ll try next year. And here we are.”
Richards sees her potential, and sometimes has to refocus her energy and competitive drive.
“Every meet has to be a new record,” Richards said of Duncan’s jumping mindset. “You have to pace yourself. Right now she’s in muscle-building mode.”
“(Losing) doesn’t go over well with me,” said Duncan, who dons her headphones and immerses herself in music to help cope. “No one ever really sees how angry I get. … But you get over it. You have to.”
In the classroom, Duncan has altered her future plans a bit. Instead of pursuing the career as a doctor, she is now hoping to become a pediatric oncology nurse. She is completing pre-requisites to be a member of SHU’s nursing program next fall.
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids. I always have loved kids,” said Duncan, who has an ultimate career goal of working for the prestigious St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. “I’m going to change some kids’ lives. My life was changed by many people by just being there. You don’t realize how much impact you can have on a person with a terminal disease.”
A Natural Leader
Duncan has had such an impact on the track program that she was named one of the team captains as a freshman. This almost unprecedented move was not a tough decision, according to Richards.
“She leads by example,” he said. “If there’s something in a team meeting that needs to be said to the freshmen, she’ll say, ‘Coach, get out of here.’ And I’ll leave and she’ll say something. … Her attitude is kind of the team’s now. She planted a seed and it’s come to fruition with success. (Her teammates) hold on to everything she says.”
At times, so does Richards, who admits he has a special bond with her.
“She helps me evaluate talent and look at recruits,” he said. “There’s not something we wouldn’t talk about. It’s far beyond a coach/athlete relationship. … It’s as close as I am with anybody on the planet.”
Richards said he admires what Duncan has overcome, and believes that is what makes her such a natural leader.
“The things I know, the pain, I don’t know how she endured,” he said of Duncan’s past. “But she turned it into such a positive. … And her emotions aren’t hardened. She’s still delicate and sensitive and caring and generous more than anybody I know. It didn’t give her a hard edge. It made her determined, motivated. I’ve never seen anything like it. If she could put in in a book or bottle it, we’d all be buying it.”
The Next Level
Duncan not only has a NAIA national championship in her sights, but a possible berth in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. She has adjusted her schedule at Siena Heights so she will be in prime position to make a bid for the ultimate prize.
“There’s no days off. If you’re going to do track and you have Olympic aspirations, it’s a 12-month dedication,” Duncan said. “It’s always in the plan.”
With a season best jump of 5-9 ¾, the 5-foot-9-inch tall Duncan is only about two inches away from the U.S. Olympic Trial qualifying standard in the event. She is also only about four inches from touching the 10-foot-high rim on a basketball court.
“How high can she go?” said Richards of Duncan, whom he calls a “Division 1 talent.” “She doesn’t have the 6-foot-1, 125-pound prototype Olympic high jump build, but she’s got this last step-and-a-half that’s so explosive.
We have to rely on quickness and a little more power. She has the finesse that a lot don’t have. She just needs to plain get stronger and jump higher in the air.”
Duncan said she has a strong support system in place both on and off campus. She currently lives with her guardian and former high school coach, Kim Irish.
“She kind of took me under her wing when my mom died,” Duncan said of Irish. “I couldn’t ask for a better guardian.”
And she still visits with her brothers, Noah and Lloyd, who live in the Adrian area. But she also considers Siena Heights part of her extended family.
“I didn’t realize how much (Siena Heights) affected me until I actually enrolled here,” Duncan said. “It truly helped me, because I didn’t realize that I needed that at the time. … Siena is my home away from home. I love it here. There’s not a place I’d rather be. I’m so happy I got to go here.”
Duncan said she hopes her story will inspire others to overcome life’s obstacles.
“As cliché as it is, it gets better if you have the mindset that you want it to be better,” she said of her positive outlook. “I went down the path that ‘my life sucks. My life is horrible.’ … Some people go down the route that it just isn’t worth it anymore. But it’s always worth it. There’s always something better down the road. It just takes some time and some patience. Time heals all. It does.”
As seen below, Phoenix is also appearing in a Siena Heights TV commercial this summer which airs during Detroit Tigers baseball games.