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By David Rieder.
Ryan Murphy was behind. It was unusual, unnerving even, to see the world’s most dominant backstroker trailing. His freshman year, he had won the 100 back NCAA title by a hand’s length over Penn State’s Shane Ryan, but nobody had come close since.
But at this year’s championships, the 100 back was a little too close for comfort. John Shebat and Luke Kaliszak were within two tenths at the halfway point. Murphy still pulled ahead and got in under 44 seconds—something only he had ever accomplished—but it was not the same, dominant Murphy fans had become accustomed to.
And then in the 200 back, Murphy was actually behind, trailing Shebat by as much as four tenths at the halfway point and then with 50 yards to go. He dug deep and pulled out the win, finishing in 1:36.75, but vintage Murphy it was not.
But none of that mattered. Murphy had put his name in the history books—only the fourth man to ever win the 100 and 200-yard events of one stroke all four years in college. Only John Naber had ever done so before in backstroke.
“I think it’s just a testament to my coaching throughout my whole life. I came to college pretty good, and I improved a lot in college. And that’s something I’m really proud of,” he said “I’m never someone who’s been complacent, and I think that showed up over the past four years.”
Sure, he had wanted more and expected more from his final NCAA meet. But for Murphy, unlike almost every other senior that competed this week in Indianapolis, the end of his college career does not mean the end of his career.
Murphy has already won three Olympic gold medals, and even as he wrapped up one huge chapter in his swimming career, such a landmark moment, his coaches helped remind him of the bigger picture.
“Obviously you want to go a best time every time you swim,” Murphy said after his 100 back. “[Cal head coach] Dave [Durden] was like, ‘The quadrennial is a marathon, not a sprint.’ And then [assistant coach] Yuri [Suguiyama] said, ‘You’ve almost become a victim of your own success.’ 43.9 is not a bad time, but since I’ve gone 43.4, it sounds like a bad time.
“I think they’re both right.”
Murphy believes that the stresses and distractions of the post-Olympic year contributed to not having the final NCAA meet that he wanted, but in the grand scheme of things, the slower-than-expected times did not bother him all that much.
“If I was worried about individual success, I would have gone pro after last summer,” he said. “That’s the beauty of a meet like NCAAs where you’re swimming a bunch of times, but you’re doing it for your team. You’re not doing it for yourself or anyone else. That’s the beauty of college swimming. That’s something that got me back in the water after the Olympics quicker than I would have if I had gone pro, just being there with the guys, being motivated for a week like this.”
Murphy thought back through his fond memories over his four years of Cal and how he grew up during his time as a Golden Bear, both in the water and out.
“I remember when I was a freshman I was just afraid of the seniors and did exactly what they told me to,” he said “Sophomore year you’re starting to figure it out, junior year you have a pretty good idea, and senior year you’re the person imparting wisdom on the young guys. That’s pretty cool to go on that journey.”
After winning the 200 back one final time, Murphy watched as Hunter Cobleigh, one of his best friends and roommates, swam in the 200 breast consolation final for the last race of his career.
For Cobleigh, this meet was no stepping stone to a professional career—that was his last race, and afterwards he was mobbed by his teammates and coaches on deck.
“It’s cool to see guys grow up in college. You look at a guy like Hunter, and he’s just improved so much in the pool and in the classroom. I think it’s really cool to see how all these guys move through our program. They become smarter. They become better swimmers. They become better people,” Murphy said.
Murphy raved about the Cal program preparing swimmers to take the next step in their lives, but his next steps will take him right back to Berkeley and back into the pool for the foreseeable future.
Up next on his calendar is meetings with potential agents then back to training, where he will have fellow 200 back Olympic finalist Jacob Pebley waiting for him Tuesday. Murphy is confident that he will be able to fix what ailed him this week in Indy.
“I don’t think I’m far off,” he said. “Looking at my races, looking at my tempos, I’m in long-course mode. I never really switched back to short-course mode. I couldn’t get my tempo to where I wanted it.”
And even with such a short break, motivation will not be an issue, not after the way Murphy swam at his final collegiate meet.
“Honestly, it just makes me mad,” he said. “I get mad, I get motivated, and then I improve. Coming off this, I have a lot of motivation to improve.”
And a motivated Murphy is a dangerous one for the rest of the world.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.