By Chase McFadden // Contributor | Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Of the 47 swimmers representing Team USA in Rio, 30 were Olympic rookies, including Ryan Murphy.
First-time jitters? Hardly.
The backstroke phenom struck gold three times in his Games debut, sweeping both men’s back events and leading off the 400 medley relay with a world record split of 51.85 in his signature race, breaking American Aaron Peirsol’s long-standing mark for the 100 meter distance.
How did Murphy and his fellow newbies -- the United States swim contingent racked up 33 total medals in Rio, the team’s biggest haul since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles -- so quickly adapt to the Olympic spotlight?
They acted like they hadn’t been there before.
“One of the things in our favor is we didn’t know what to expect. We went in there and we could just treat it like any other meet because we didn’t know what the Olympic stage was like,” Murphy explains of how he and the other American rookies cut their collective teeth in Rio. “We reverted back to doing the things we’ve always done. That was crucial. We were just able to let our instincts take over.
“For me, it was very similar to the Olympic Trials. I followed the exact same daily plan that I followed at the Trials, and that’s something that I wrote down: figuring out what I needed to do, when I needed to do it, how long each thing was going to take. So I really just got into the process of what I was doing and that paid huge dividends for me.”
Did it ever.
In his first finals swim, the 100 back, that commitment to routine paid off, as Murphy extended a US men’s victory streak in the event now spanning six Games. Such a tradition of excellence could exert its own pressure, but the 21-year-old said it was a non-factor.
“I honestly didn’t think about the streak too much. That’s something the media was focusing on a lot and was a big storyline going into the race, but I wasn’t worried about letting my country down,” Murphy said. “I was trying to maintain a level head and if I let myself think about things outside of my control, it would have made me a lot more nervous than I was.
“I read through a stack of letters from the backstrokers who have won. They shared what had helped them, words of advice, how to deal with the Olympic Village, the Olympic spotlight, and that was something that helped me. But they didn’t bring up the streak. They just wanted me to do as well as I could, and if I could do that, they’d be happy.”
Murphy said the race for his first Olympic gold went pretty much as he’d envisioned, and it helped to have a US teammate at his side.
“I can distinctly remember being behind the blocks before the start of the 100. Me and David [Plummer] were right next to each other when we were jumping into the pool. That helped me to feel comfortable in that type of race because David is a guy I’ve raced a bunch of times.
“Once I got into the race, the first 35 meters is a blur,” Murphy recalled. “I was just trying to keep my posture. I remember hitting the turn and I could see that I was a little behind, and based on how prelims had gone, that was something I expected going into the race. I didn’t feel my easy speed was totally there, so I expected to be a little bit behind, but by the time I hit the 75 meter mark, I thought, This feels pretty good, I definitely have another gear I can put it into here.
“I remember finishing and I swear I saw the scoreboard immediately. I let out a yell and slapped the water and then I remember David came to the lane line and gave me a hug. It was a super cool moment seeing everyone in the stands cheering for me when I raised my arms up as I got out of the pool. That’s definitely an image in my mind that I’ll never forget.
Murphy, currently swimming collegiately for the Golden Bears of UC Berkeley, has plans for an encore to his debut Olympic performance four years from now, possibly with a twist.
“I don’t want to give up my titles in either backstroke. I want to stay on top and I’m committed to doing that,” Murphy says of potentially punching a ticket for Tokyo. “I’m also exploring what other strokes I could get onto the international scene with, particularly the 100 and 200 freestyle where they take six people for both the Worlds and Olympics. I think there’s potential where I could break into those events a little bit.”
USA Swimming is re-celebrating the top moments from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Check back onsftest.usaswimming.org every few days for new profile on the the swimmers who made those moments happen. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @USASwimming for more on our success in Rio.