Hometown Hopefuls: Road to Paris

How a sibling rivalry led suburban swimmer Ryan Murphy toward Olympic glory

“I am so competitive. I absolutely want to win everything,” Murphy said

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After a young Ryan Murphy moved from Palos Heights, Illinois, to Florida, his parents suggested that the family go to their local community pool to make friends- an idea they never knew would lead their youngest child to six Olympic medals and counting.

As the youngest of the three children, Murphy was the last to touch the pool.

He watched as his oldest sister, who already knew how to swim, immediately got into the water. The following summer, Murphy said his older brother was also proficient enough to join in.

“I was just the young kid running around with my life vest on, chomping at the bit so I could play with my older siblings,” Murphy told reporter Alex Maragos.

Murphy’s story is featured in NBC Chicago’s new series focused on Chicago-area Olympians, “Hometown Hopefuls: Road to Paris.”

When he was 4, Murphy went on to finally be able to officially join his community summer league team and begin competing, which he said are some of his fondest memories in the sport.

“Competing at the age of 4 means you eat a popsicle and then you go and swim," Murphy said. “It was very recreational at that point. But it’s so fun.”

Murphy said he knew he was good at swimming at a young age- but then again, he thought he was good at everything.

“I always played every sport and I loved to compete. I knew I was decent at it at a young age,” Murphy said.

And that competitive nature has not gone away. Murphy told NBC Chicago's Alex Maragos he wants to win it all.

“I am so competitive. I absolutely want to win everything,” Murphy said.

So why swimming?

Murphy said that he loves how challenging the sport is.

“At the baseline, I love to compete and I love to try to be the best,” Murphy said. “What does it take to be the best? I’ve loved the pursuit of trying to figure that out.”

According to Murphy, he knew he could really take his swimming career far was when he was 16 and competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials. There, he made the finals in both the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter backstroke but did not make the Olympic team.

Murphy said going into the “big boy heat” and seeing the emotions of those who made the team brought his motivation to another level.

He knew he had the baseline natural talent, but now realized he had to take the sport more seriously.

At the trials in 2012, Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers finished his race and tapped Murphy on the shoulder with words of wisdom.

“You’re next kid,” Grevers told Murphy.

Four years later, Murphy competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials and successfully made his first Olympic team. He said that at that time, he was still young and naïve, and didn’t feel comfortable in his skin.

Despite feeling like he was “walking on edge,” Murphy went on to win the gold medal in his first race, the 100-meter backstroke, where he also set a world record by finishing in 51.97 seconds. He held this record until 2022.

After that race, Murphy went on to win two more gold medals in Rio, in the 200-meter backstroke and the 4x100-meter medley. He said that experience was a confidence boost for him both as a swimmer and as a person, one that molded him into who he is today.

“I’m so happy I had [that level of success at such a young age], and it didn’t do anything to extinguish the fire that I have,” Murphy said.

Even after winning three gold medals, Murphy said after 2016 he was working just as hard at trying to improve and win medals for Team USA.

Which he did.

Murphy qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team, where the experience was different than what he had been through before.

“There really were no distractions because there were no people there. You walk on to the pool deck and there were maybe 500 people in the stands,” Murphy said. “I think the arena seated 20,000.”

Along with a different environment, Murphy also experienced a different outcome. He took home the gold in the 4x100-meter medley relay, the silver in the 200-meter backstroke, and the bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.

At the time, Murphy called his third place finish a “mix of emotions.” Now, he said he doesn’t think about that race.

“I carry a ton of motivation. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with motivation,” Murphy said. “I don’t need to add gasoline to the fire. There’s definitely enough fire burning there.”

On Monday night, Murphy officially punched his ticket to the 2024 Games by securing a win in the men’s 100-meter backstroke final at the Olympic Trials.

Heading into Paris, Murphy is not the same swimmer he used to be.

Murphy said he still leans on his coaches for advice, but has a much higher level understanding of the sport than he did before. Now, he knows exactly how he wants to swim in his races and can break it down to granular details.

“I know exactly what I’m doing on a daily basis and why I’m good,” Murphy said.

In preparation for Paris, Murphy said he has been working hard to try to make improvements. Even though he’s physically tired, he is optimistic with how things will turn out.

“At this point I’m not looking for a percentage point of improvement. I’m looking for a tenth of a percent or a hundredth of a percent of improvement because that can be the difference,” Murphy said. “When you break it down to that level, everything matters so much more.”

With Paris being his third Olympics, Murphy said he’s in a more experienced role, and tries to give the younger athletes advice in hopes of continuing Team USA’s dominant legacy at the Olympic Games.

“[Swimming] really is thought of as an individual sport. But there’s so many people that have a hand in your success. And you really need that,” Murphy said.

Murphy said when he was younger, he knew he wanted to be great at something, he just wasn’t sure what yet. When he jumped in the community pool in Florida, Murphy unknowingly jumped in to a lifetime of competing at the highest level possible and being what he wanted to be- great.

Be sure to watch Murphy’s first race in Paris, scheduled for July 28 on NBC Sports.

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