On meeting Altona 6th grader Nayah Murphy, one can’t help but be drawn in by her cheerful demeanor, warm smile, and bubbling laughter, not to mention friendly amber eyes and voluminous curls. Spend a little time chatting with her, and guaranteed it won’t take minutes before other, less overt and equally striking qualities reveal themselves, not least intensity of focus, committed work ethic, and fierce internal drive balanced harmoniously with approachable sincerity. Nayah Murphy possesses poise and a certain worldliness that defies her twelve years. Celebrity status has a way of inspiring that in a person, though in this instance, motivation clearly comes foremost from within.
Like any typical sixth grader, Nayah has her plate full with the demands of schoolwork, navigating evolving social scenes, the ups and downs of friendships. Atypically, she somehow manages to fit all of it in alongside the rigorous demands of high level training and racing, frequent travel, and oh yes, the occasional film shoot. Nayah isn’t likely to be caught complaining about the burdens caused by lack of time, however. She doesn’t have time for that.
When Nayah was three years old, she determined she wanted to start karate after watching “Scooby Doo and the Samurai Sword”. “It looked fun,” Nayah says. “I went to my first martial arts class and it kind of just went from there.” By ‘it’, Nayah means her progression from wide-eyed preschool martial arts student to five-time North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) world champion. Her mastery and athleticism became so standout, she landed a role as one of the stunt doubles for “Laura”, played by Defne Keen, in the 2017 Marvel Entertainment film, “Logan”. Many of those stunts were done alongside actor Hugh Jackman. In addition, Nayah was given a secondary role in the movie, acting the part of a Mutant Child.
Nayah’s mother Stephanie had submitted a demo reel of her daughter’s martial arts skills after hearing about film auditions from Nayah’s karate teacher. “We didn’t expect in she’d actually get called,” Stephanie says. “We figured a billion kids would try out for it.” Perhaps a billion kids did try out indeed, but Nayah and her family were flown out within a week. “Literally, we’d get notice in less than 24 hours to be on location,” Stephanie recounts. “It was insane.”
It takes a strong person, not least a young person, to meet the demands of a rigorous, unexpected schedule head-on the way Nayah did. It might be said that it takes even more strength to then give it up. Nayah thrived on set. She made friends, gained knowledge, and was offered shining glimpses of a potential future she may not have otherwise envisioned. But while she loved the experience, and would like to do further work as a stunt double, she came to realize that her heart was with something else altogether: barrel racing.
As a toddler and preschooler, Nayah didn’t care for horses. As she grew, however, she began spending more time with them alongside her mother, watching, and caring for them. At age eight, she began taking up riding seriously. It wasn’t long before she began competing in barrel racing, a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a course around preset barrels in the fastest time. She loved it. “I’m not really drawn to most team sports,” says Nayah. “I’m good at barrel racing. I love how with barrel racing, it’s just me and the horse, working together, doing our best. I love the thrill, running really fast. I love training the horses, riding them, getting them calm, making sure they’re healthy. There’s just so much involved, and it’s really special.”
Needless to say, Nayah throws herself into all her pursuits with determination and drive. Ultimately, she found herself pulled too taut in two directions, having to compromise between barrel racing and karate. A farm-girl at heart, she chose the horses.
Ironically, Nayah’s decision to stop her karate training and focus solely on barrel racing came following the earning of her fifth world title. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’ll always hold onto martial arts skills and lessons,” Nayah says. “But I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. It was pulling me away from the horses.”
Nayah’s decision opened up new worlds. For one thing, she was able to begin attending Altona Middle this past fall. In order to accommodate filming for ‘Logan’, and travel for regular NASKA competitions, she had been homeschooling for the previous year. Given the space for enhanced focus, Nayah has also improved significantly in her chosen sport. “There are four different divisions in barrel racing,” she explains. “1D is the fastest, going down to 4D. I went from 3D to 1D in six months.” “She even outruns some of the professional barrel racers,” Stephanie, a competitive barrel racer herself, adds proudly.
What’s next for Nayah? Day to day, she’s focused on working hard at school, maintaining grades, enjoying time with her friends and family. Long-term, she’s open-minded, but no doubt the future will involve horses. This past year she qualified for the Junior National Finals Rodeo, in which she competed early December. This year she will attempt to qualify for the RFD-TV American Barrel Race competition, hoping to compete in 2019. “Maybe one day I’ll be an equine vet, or something else that involves working with horses,” Nayah says. “But I also want to try to be a professional barrel racer. I want to see where I can go.”
We are looking forward to seeing where you go too, Nayah, and are thrilled with your adventures so far. Thank you for sharing some of your journey with us!
LWL: You’ve certainly got a packed schedule! How do you fit it all in?
Nayah: Usually I wake up, go to school, then ride after school for about two hours. When I don’t have school, I’ll do Insanity (high intensity interval) workouts for about an hour. And I do trampoline and tumbling class at Airborne Gymnastics for an hour and a half twice a week. It’s hard but not really too bad. I just have to make sure I’m always being productive and efficient. At free period in school, I can get a lot of my homework done, and finish up the rest at home in the evenings.
LWL: Barrel racing isn’t exactly a commonly known sport. What kind of training is involved?
Nayah: Barrel racing involves a lot of core strength. You have to be strong to pull yourself up when the horse is riding–sometimes 40 miles an hour around a turn, heading into a barrel. A lot of training is of course riding the horse. But I’ll do some running too–it especially helps when I’m frustrated.
LWL: You mentioned how your experience as a martial artist has helped you in barrel racing. Can you share a little more?
Nayah: I think it helps me channel defeat well. I had a lot of practice–with karate, things don’t always go your way, but you have to turn it around and perform your best again within about five minutes.
LWL: How do you face competition? Do you get nervous?
Nayah: Oh yes. Once I get in the arena, I’m fine, but I get really nervous beforehand. But when I pet my horse, I calm down. Calming him calms me, too.
LWL: You’re all so busy. How do you share active activity together as a family?
Nayah: It’s fun how my mom and I get to share barrel racing together. We both love it and compete at the same races. And my Dad [a former adventure racer] comes to watch. We also do just fun stuff, like going bowling, roller skating, all kids of stuff.
LWL: How do you prioritize healthy eating as a family?
Nayah: My mom has to eat gluten-free, and she works hard to help us all eat healthy home-cooked meals.
LWL: What’s your favorite healthy food?
Nayah: My favorite meal is steak and vegetables.
LWL: What would be your biggest tip to other young people discovering their dreams and potential?
Nayah: Do what you love to do.
Photo credit: Boaz Elkes