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TOKYO — The concept of “American exceptionalism” has been under siege for a while now, but there are pockets of resistance. While we may be leaking prestige educationally, politically and culturally, there is one area where the phrase still applies: Olympic men’s backstroke.
The U.S. has long been the pre-eminent swimming power in the world. If you subdivide that by stroke and gender, the men backstrokers have been the best of the best. And within a week’s time, Ryan Murphy might establish himself as the best of the best of the best.
He could become the baron of the backstroke elite, the most exceptional American in an exceptional lineage.
The U.S. men have held the world record in the 100-meter back continuously since August 1988, and in the 200 since 1999. They have captured gold medals in both the 100 and 200 back in six straight Olympic Games. From Jeff Rouse to Lenny Krazelburg to Aaron Peirsol (twice) to Matt Grevers to Murphy in the 100; from Brad Bridgewater to Krayzelburg to Piersol to Ryan Lochte to Tyler Clary to Murphy in the 200.
Last time the “Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t playing after a male Olympic backstroke event was 1992 in Barcelona, three years before Murphy was born. Men’s basketball wishes it could match that streak.
But Murphy now has a chance to separate himself from even that elite company. No U.S. male Olympian has ever completed the backstroke double-double, repeating as gold medalist at both distances. Not even Peirsol, who can currently lay claim to being the best of the best of the best; he won three of four but was beaten by Lochte in the 200 in ’08. Murphy not only has a chance to claim the double-double, he has a good chance.
“When he’s on, there’s not many who can hold a candle to him,” said his coach at Cal Aquatics, Dave Durden, who also is the U.S. men’s Olympic head coach.
The 26-year-old California graduate comes into the swimming competition here as the second-fastest backstroker in the world in 2021 at both distances. The competition is formidable from Russians Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Koselnikov, plus Xu Jiayu of China and Mitch Larkin of Australia.
Murphy has been knocking heads with that same cast of characters for five years, and came out on top the last time it mattered most. (Jiayu took silver in the 100 in 2016, while Larkin was second and Rylov third in the 200.) His full haul from Rio de Janeiro: three gold medals, including the medley relay in which he set the world record in the 100 back while leading off.
He also likely was not fully rested at the U.S. Olympic Trials when swimming those second-best-in-the-world times last month. So it seems likely that we will see the best Ryan Murphy in years here in the coming days, and that could make him the best of all-time in his specialty. He’s ready for the challenge.
“I enjoy having huge goals,” Murphy says. “I write them down and stuff them in a drawer—I don’t need my goals in front of me. I just always need to be pushing for something bigger.”
Toward that end, Murphy has been in the ideal place training at Cal. Durden has assembled a training group that serves as the epicenter of U.S. backstroke excellence. Elite backstrokers want to come to Berkeley to train with Murphy, and he welcomes that competition.
Cal swimmers took half the spots in the eight-man final of the 200 back at Olympic trials, and two of the eight in the 100. Cal product Bryce Mefford made the Tokyo team by finishing second to Murphy in the 200, while younger Golden Bears Daniel Carr and Destin Lasco will push for spots on the Olympic team in 2024.
“It's just a really incredible group to be a part of,” Murphy says. “Each has their individual strengths. If we’re doing an underwater set, I'm going to want to line up next to Destin Lasco. He's got incredible underwaters. If we're going a little longer backstroke, probably line up next to Bryce Mefford. Daniel Carr can beat me nine times out of 10 if we're just jump starting to 15 [meters]. So everyone's got their individual skills and it's just really fun to keep each other on our toes every single day.”
Fact is, Murphy seeks out the best rotating challenge he can get in practice on a routine basis, depending on what the workout calls for. Whoever can provide the stiffest competition on that day is who Murphy wants in the lane next to him. “I’m getting fresh guys every day to go up next to me,” he says. “We get after it. I always feel like I’m chasing someone—that’s how I operate. I have a lot of urgency at practice every day.”
For perhaps the only time in his life, keeping the competitive flame lit was hard after the brilliant performance in Rio. Still young enough to have a lot of good years left, Murphy described himself as “a bit lost” in terms of turning the page to the next act. “I kind of accomplished everything I really wanted to accomplish in the sport,” he says. “Trying to re-set my goals was a bit challenging, and I took my licks in 2017.”
Murphy finished with a silver in the 200 back and bronze in the 100 at the FINA World Championships that year. Fire rekindled by that comeuppance, he came back strong and dominated both events at the Pan-Pacific Championships in ’18, the biggest international meet that year. Then 2019 was another dip at Worlds, albeit one Murphy says he brought on himself. “I erred on the side of overtraining in 2019 to be ready for 2020,” he says.
And then, of course, 2020 became a lost season. Murphy managed to get through the extended Bay Area lockdown with the help of his five roommates in a house a couple miles from campus (an array of current and former swimmers) and his varied interests away from the pool.
Having grown up in Jacksonville, Murphy is thrilled by the arrival of Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer to lead his beloved Jaguars. (“How the heck is Urban Meyer our coach? A year ago that would have sounded just ridiculous.”) He’s also got an investment portfolio that keeps him occupied, putting his Cal business degree to work. He’s become a pretty good cook (“I make an incredible breakfast omelette”). And he’s joined advisory boards at his high school alma mater (The Bolles School) and at Cal.
Mostly, though, he has focused on his swimming craft. Named a co-captain of the men’s team for this Olympic meet alongside former Bolles School teammate Caeleb Dressel, Murphy’s leadership has been valued. He’s got some of the “It” factor that his former Cal teammate, Nathan Adrian, brought to the U.S. squad in previous Olympics—charisma, intelligence, work ethic and a famous level of focus.
This is the guy who, at age 8, wrote a letter (that his parents kept, naturally) saying that he wants to be an Olympian and break world records when he grows up. Those missions have been accomplished. The next level is visible and attainable now: to become the best of the best of the best, the greatest U.S. Olympic backstroker of all-time.
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