How an Olympian got his start on UNF’s campus

Will Weber

Katy Murphy hugs her son at the Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy
Katy Murphy hugs her son at the Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy

When the starting buzzer rang, the eight coiled swimmers gripping the wall exploded out with full extension in the men’s gold medal 100m backstroke.

From her front-row seat at Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Katy Murphy’s eyes remained locked on the 21-year-old American in lane four.

“Tell me the split at the turn,” Murphy said to a man sitting beside her, afraid to glance at the leaderboard and take her eyes from the pool.

When she heard the time and the position at the halfway turn, her heart skipped a beat — fourth place.

But in the last 50 meters, the American surged forward, his arms rotating like helicopter blades. He pulled even with the leaders, then glided ahead for a first-place finish and Olympic record.

Katy’s husband, Pat, lifted her off the ground with a hug and kiss caught on national TV.

Their son was an Olympic champion.

Ryan Murphy went on to win two more gold medals and set a world record alongside Michael Phelps in the 2016 Olympic Games.

Katy witnessed her son complete the arduous journey of becoming an Olympic champion — a journey that started here, on UNF’s campus.

 

Ryan Murphy poses with Matthew McConaughey at the Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy
Ryan Murphy poses with Matthew McConaughey at the Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy

The start

Two days after Ryan’s final event, Katy was on a plane to Jacksonville, reading through hundreds of congratulatory text messages, emails and Facebook posts. While many stayed to enjoy the white sand on Copacabana Beach, Katy began planning for the 35 new students who would be filing into her class at 10 a.m. for pre-calculus at UNF.

Katy Murphy began teaching in UNF’s math department 16 years ago, as a part-time professor. At the same time, four-year-old Ryan Murphy began recreational swimming, after his older brother Patrick and older sister Shannon discovered the sport. Ryan stood out as such an undeniably gifted swimmer, his coach called Katy at the end of the season to question her.

“[She] asked me questions about my husband’s genetics and his foot size and little intangible things that make good swimmers,” Katy said. “She really recognized a natural talent Ryan had in the water.”

Katy soon started bringing Ryan to UNF, so he could swim in the now-demolished aquatic center while she taught class. He trained on campus nearly every day for the next five years and swam for programs like North Florida Swimming.

Swimming morphed into Ryan’s passion and soon consumed his life. Like most young swimmers growing up in the 2000s, one of his role models became Michael Phelps, who Murphy dressed up as for Halloween and wrote a book report on in fourth grade.

Little did that young child know, he would one day share an Olympic podium with his idol.

 

Bolles: where swimmers are made

In eighth grade, Ryan enrolled at swimming powerhouse The Bolles School, a school that produced three gold-medalist swimmers in the 2016 games and 59 Olympic athletes since 1972. Here, under Head Coach Sergio Lopez, Ryan developed the elite work ethic and technical skills it takes to become great.

“[Sergio] was big on the mind, and developing the mental side of the sport,” Katy said. “He was a huge reason why Ryan succeeded this summer.”

By ninth grade, Ryan was practicing six days a week, which included two grueling sessions every Monday, the first of which started before the sun came up. By tenth grade, Ryan had two-a-days twice a week and by his junior and senior year, three days a week.

At Bolles, Ryan met Joseph Schooling, a Singapore native about three weeks older than him. Schooling and Murphy pushed each other during practices, and like Murphy, Schooling won his first gold medal in Rio in the men’s 100m butterfly.

 

The Murphy family celebrates with Ryan after his win. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy
The Murphy family celebrates with Ryan after his win. Photo courtesy Katy Murphy

2012: Olympic failure

In 2012, a 16-year-old Murphy made it to the final round of two events in the U.S. Olympic team trials. Needing a top-two finish to qualify for the London Olympics, he placed fourth in the 200m backstroke and sixth in the 100m.

Ryan was especially disappointed with his time in the 200m, the race he was most hopeful to qualify in.

“Because there was this little outside chance [to qualify], he kind of let his nerves get the best of him,” Katy said.

The loss, though disappointing, proved to be another pivotal moment in Murphy’s swimming career.

“If he didn’t have the learning experience from that, I don’t think he would’ve had the success in 2016,” his mother said.

 

Training for Rio

In the four years between London and Rio, Ryan’s motivation went into overdrive. He chose to swim for the University of California, Berkeley, where he matured outside the pool. He focused on nutrition, creating a healthy lifestyle, proper stretching and growing mentally. He scheduled every aspect of his life, from meals to naps, in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games.

At Cal, Murphy became the NCAA Champion in the 100 and 200 yard backstroke in 2014, 2015 and 2016. He was also named NCAA Swimmer of the Year twice and led the Golden Bears to a national championship as a freshman, all while maintaining a 3.56 grade point average at one of the toughest business programs in the country.

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Photo courtesy Katy Murphy

Competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Ryan’s first gold medal in the 100m backstroke was the start of a 10-day whirlwind for the Murphys. Because he was competing in two more events, Ryan’s militaristic schedule kept Katy from seeing her son until five days after his first gold. And when she saw him, they had a brief 10-minute conversation in a small holding area in the Olympic Village, before he was forced leave for a scheduled nap.

Ryan swept the backstroke events, winning both the 100m and 200m, and unlike in 2012, when nerves got the best of him, Murphy saved his best for last.

32.7 million people tuned in for the men’s 4×100 medley relay to watch Michael Phelps go for gold in his final race. Murphy, now swimming on a team with the same man he once dressed up as for Halloween, set a world record in the opening 100m backstroke with a time of 51.85 and set the team up for first.

“Murphy starting off with a world record is just insane,” Phelps said after the race.

“It was a dream come true for him and I know [swimming with Phelps] was one of Ryan’s goals,” Katy said. “I think that gave Ryan that extra boost of adrenaline to really want to perform well.”

 

Back to reality

Two weeks later and Katy is now back in class, teaching a group of UNF students the same age as her son the basic rules of calculus.

As life slowly returns to some semblance of normal, Katy knows the experience isn’t over.

“I’ll probably get more choked up as I reflect and watch all the DVR tapes and it hits me that it was actually the Olympic Games.”

As for Ryan, he’s back at the California house he shares with five roommates and entering his junior year of college, ready to take on four classes.

And if the past is any indicator of the future, expect to see Murphy in the 2020 Tokyo games.

 

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