BALDWIN COUNTY, Ala. (WKRG) — Sydnee Cantley has a presence that grabs your attention.
The University of South Alabama puts her front and center with the Jaguar Marching Band.
“It’s so surreal…a dream come true,” Cantley said.
The moves of the 18-year-old feature twirler look effortless even when her batons are on fire.
“I love it,” Cantley said. “It’s so much fun especially performing in front of people because they’re always like..ohhh..my gosh! She’s gonna burn herself. Oh my goodness! She’s twirling fire! What’s gonna happen next?”
For Sydnee, manipulating a two and a half foot steel stick flawlessly is more than athleticism. It’s an escape.
“It’s been my saving grace,” she said. “It’s really gotten me through so much, and it’s just been the way to release all my emotions like if I was frustrated or upset or sad. It was just a good distraction for me, and it just gave me something to go to. To go outside, throw the baton and get all the anger out.”
That anger came from fear and pain. When she was 7, her mother committed suicide.
“I wonder what she would have like…thinks about me going into a nursing major,” Cantley said. “Or I wonder what she thinks about me twirling. Or I wonder what she would be like as a pageant mom. I just think of those little things like that.”
How her mother died is something Sydnee kept secret until she started high school and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer not once but twice.
“I just asked. Why me? Like why do all these things keep happening to me,” she said.
When Sydnee’s mother died, she moved to Baldwin County to live with her grandparents. To this day, she holds on to her grandmother’s advice.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Even though we may not know it in the moment, we’ll know one day and the best thing we can do is take everything that happens in our life as a learning experience and grow from it.”
“I found the confidence to use my voice and to share my story and to step up and to be able to help save lives. That’s what I knew, that was my reasoning for all this happening. It was just to help others.”
Named Miss Gulf Coast, she uses her title to also spread mental health awareness by sharing the story of losing her mother.
“The last thing I remember was her tucking me into bed, giving me a hug and kiss, telling me goodnight and that she loved me,” she said.
What fuels her is the validation she receives when she connects with others who’ve also suffered.
“Once I heard that, I knew that I had touched a life,” she said. “I knew that my message just needed to be heard.”
Sydnee’s push for adolescent wellness checkups addressing physical and mental health has the attention of local leaders even the governor. Her plans are bigger, to compete for Miss Alabama, Miss America and spread her initiative nationwide.
Long term, Sydnee’s goal is to be a pediatric ICU nurse, inspired by the nurses who took such good care of her when fighting cancer both physically and mentally.