Two years from Paris Olympics, Ryan Murphy eyes goals inside and outside swimming pool

·7 min read

Not even after two-plus decades of racing in the water and racing against the clock.

Not even after a half-decade's quest to retain the title of world king of the backstroke.

For Ryan Murphy, the drive to be the best never fades.

"That gives me such an intense amount of motivation, just thinking about competing, coming up with ideas of how I can improve," he said, in a remote interview through Zoom with the Times-Union. "At this point, improvement is an entire lifestyle. In the pool, we're looking at conditioning and technique, things we can do there. Outside the pool, looking at diet, sleep, recovery, the mental side."

The Bolles School swimmer is continuing to make a splash both inside and outside the pool as he counts down to the 2024 Olympics, now fewer than two years away from their opening ceremonies in Paris.

The coming Olympics, which would be Murphy's third, begin July 26, 2024.

In the water, the 2016 Olympic champion, now 27, he's still enjoying the thrill of his 200-meter backstroke world championship this summer.

Outside the pool, he's preparing for a new chapter in life with his coming marriage next year, and hoping to inspire the next generation of swimmers.

"I'm really excited with the way that the world championships went, really excited for how that sets me up for the next two years," he said.

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Ryan Murphy celebrates after winning the world championship in the 200-meter backstroke at the FINA World Championships in June.
Ryan Murphy celebrates after winning the world championship in the 200-meter backstroke at the FINA World Championships in June.

Long-awaited world gold

The medals are mounting fast.

For the first time ever, the four-time Olympic gold medalist is also an individual long-course world champion.

Murphy won gold in the 200 back in June at the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, a long-awaited individual victory after numerous relay titles and individual silver medals in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

"That's what I truly love about the sport," Murphy said. "I love the planning process of starting 10 months out, [of finding out] what can we do at different parts of the year to really get me excited about improvement so that ultimately when I show up to world championships, I could really just let the competitive instincts take over, completely comfortable with the training we've done."

Those competitive instincts have carried him a long way. A decade ago, he was the up-and-coming teenager from Bolles racing at the U.S. Olympic Trials, only narrowly missing out on a berth on the team for the 2012 Games in London.

Now, he's the hunted, the American world record holder, winner of three gold medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and still the target for every aspiring backstroker in the sport.

For Murphy, the challenge of keeping up with young and hungry competitors never lets up, and he said his background at Bolles — where he raced on a record-shattering squad at the start of the last decade — has helped him hold time at bay.

"I always felt like I needed to improve," he said. "I never felt like I could just relax and be complacent, when you're surrounded by guys like [Olympic medalists and Bolles Sharks teammates] Joseph Schooling, Caeleb Dressel, Santo Condorelli... I felt like I was exposed to competition at a young age and I need it. I completely thrive off the competition to give myself a sense of urgency every single day."

Taking on new challenge

Murphy has also embarked on a new campaign to raise awareness about eczema, a challenge he's faced since his first days of competitive swimming as a 6-year-old with the Queens Harbour Wahoos in summer league competition in Jacksonville.

"That was the first time that I felt that I had this constant itch," he said.

He said the condition was initially suspected to be a reaction to allergies, but eventually he was diagnosed with the skin disease, which in serious cases can lead to severe itching and widespread rashes.

While Murphy said the disease didn't threaten to derail his career, he's hoping to encourage people who might feel hesitant about taking up activities like swimming because of concerns about how others might respond to their skin conditions.

Murphy is now active in the Now Me: Beach Mode campaign in conjunction with pharmaceutical manufacturers Sanofi and Regeneron, designed to help people with moderate to severe eczema to find treatment options and navigate the challenges of their condition.

"I've always wanted to pass on the joys that swimming has brought me, and now I feel like I have an opportunity to do this more on the lifestyle side," he said.

For Murphy, named a team captain on the United States lineup in Hungary this year, the campaign is just one of the ventures that's brought him widespread visibility as a top American swimmer since the retirement of Michael Phelps.

Murphy has also become one of the faces of nationwide programs for youth swimming lessons through Goldfish Swim School, and signed a deal with Speedo in June 2017 after his collegiate career at the University of California. On a local level, he's also assisted the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund in its mission to help young cancer patients.

Ryan Murphy (Cal cap, in center) launches from the wall in the men's 100 backstroke semifinal at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Ryan Murphy (Cal cap, in center) launches from the wall in the men's 100 backstroke semifinal at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Looking ahead to Paris

Now, more than ever, preparation is Murphy's magic word.

"The biggest fear I always have is going into a meet feeling underprepared," he said. "So I am doing everything I can throughout the season to feel as prepared as possible."

His next goal in swimming: qualifying for the 2024 Games and joining the exclusive list of three-time Olympic swimmers for the United States. The last American man to race a backstroke event in three Olympics was Aaron Peirsol in 2000, 2004 and 2008 (Ryan Lochte competed in four Olympics but only raced backstroke events in two of them).

On paper, as 200-meter world champion and 100-meter runner-up to Italy's Thomas Ceccon, Murphy ranks among the favorites for the next Olympics, scheduled to begin three weeks after his 29th birthday. Not yet certain is the status of Russian contenders Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov, both excluded from the recent world championships due to sanctions imposed following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Murphy, though, isn't taking anything for granted.

"It's hard to do this year after year at such a high level, and expect yourself to do everything just about perfect," he said.

Even nailing down a berth on the United States team by finishing in the top two of the Olympic Trials in the 100 or 200 back is no slam dunk. His primary challengers include Justin Ress and Hunter Armstrong, both noted for their sprint speed after placing 1-2 in the 50 back at this summer's world championships in Hungary, as well as Shaine Casas, who took bronze behind Murphy in the 200 back in June.

But Paris isn't the only part of his future. In May, he announced his engagement to his fiancee, Bridget Konttinen, whom he met while at Cal. Murphy said their wedding is scheduled for September 2023.

A longtime Jaguars fan, he also said he's looking forward to watching what he's hoping will be a turnaround season under new coach Doug Pederson: "He's great. I'm really excited about him."

No matter where his swimming journey carries him, Murphy said he still relishes the hometown backing.

"It's been incredible to see the support that the Jacksonville area has and always has had for me," he said.

For the next couple of months, he's stepping back from the competitive grind. Murphy isn't yet sure exactly when he will race his next serious meet, although he's planning to take the next step in his journey toward Paris at some point later in the fall.

"We're looking at the end of July 2024, the 2024 Games, and we're working backwards from that," he said. "It's like, OK, what do we need to see three months out of the Games? What sort of training do we need to do six months out? We're working on that right now, working on the general, 30,000-foot-view plan. That's honestly what gets me fired up."

Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Ryan Murphy swims toward new goals, eyes 2024 Paris Olympics