Starboy: Ryan Murphy’s transformation into 3-time gold medalist

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Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Boom, crash, pow!

These are the sound effects that accompany the movies Cal swimmer Ryan Murphy likes to view when he finds free time between the two major undertakings in his life — UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and swimming. Maybe more emphasis on the latter. In a sense, Ryan’s taste for action-packed Michael Bay movies mirrors the way he lives his life — lots of action with little time to catch his breath.

Ryan, however, is not just a “Transformers” spectator. The contrast between his quietly intense personality in the water and his outgoing, relaxed manner when he’s on terra firma makes him a transformer in his own right. But which Autobot does he most resemble? Optimus Prime  — the powerful leader of the Transformer clan, to be exact — said to possess strong morals and attention to detail.

“When … we are in the middle of the tough sets and workouts that a lot of progress is (being) made in, he is 100 percent locked in every time. There is not too much joking,” says senior Hunter Cobleigh, a roommate of Ryan’s for more than three years. “When the mood is a little lighter, he is definitely someone you can laugh with.”

Cobleigh, along with seniors Dillon Williams and Jonathan Fiepke and junior Kyle Coan, have gotten to know Ryan’s inside- and outside-the-pool personality through living with him for almost four years — first on the same floor in Unit 3 and then in a house on Southside. Safe to say, they’ve got front-row tickets to Ryan’s biopic.

Ryan’s love for sports, rooted in his Floridian, SEC-territory upbringing, has rubbed off on his housemates over the years. Other than taking in action movies, the group can be found watching college football on Saturdays in the fall or playing beach volleyball on the Clark Kerr courts.

These seem like pretty low-key activities for a swimmer who has competed and fraternized with the best of his kind. As a backstroker, Ryan has always admired Aaron Peirsol, regarded by most as the best backstroker in history. Over the past couple of years, Ryan has gotten to know Peirsol and considers him a mentor. And, of course, every kid swimming in his local recreational-league pool will look up to Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, two of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all time.

When Lochte was a student at the University of Florida, he would swim in local meets close to Ryan’s home in Ponte Vedra, Florida. The two even competed next to each other when Ryan was 13 years old. From then on, they became informal friends, and two years later, Lochte gifted Ryan a pair of shoes, which he still treasures to this day.

And as far as Phelps goes, Ryan realized every young swimmer’s dream when he swam the first leg of 4×100-meter medley relay at the 2016 Olympics with an all-star lineup of Phelps, Cody Miller and former Bear Nathan Adrian.

But just meeting his idol was not enough: Ryan set a new world record in the 100-meter backstroke, giving the team a significant edge after the first leg of the race.

If you were tuned in to the medal-stand festivities, you would see Ryan and Phelps sharing words (which we can only assume contain some prolific mentor-mentee wisdom) before Ryan grabs hands with his teammates to receive their gold medals.

Phelps is quite possibly the most recognizable name among athletes around the world. A moment like that for Ryan — an undergraduate athlete and Olympic rookie witnessing the end to one of the greatest swimming careers of all time — is incomparable.

“Everything just came full circle,” Ryan says. “You are grinding away trying to get to that level, and then you get there and realize the guys are just normal people. It is super cool to see the person behind the swimmer. They understand that they are the older guys, and all the younger guys want to be just like them.”

Any kid can watch the Olympics every four years and ogle these role models, but very few can call Phelps, Peirsol and Lochte their teammates, mentors and friends.

Ryan’s road to the Olympics was long but not unexpected. He quickly strayed from team sports such as soccer and baseball because he felt as though he had a lack of control over the result — paramount for someone who lives to see little improvements build up.

In his junior year of high school, Ryan competed in the Olympic Trials for London 2012 and placed fourth and sixth in the 200- and 100-meter backstroke, respectively. He was good, but not quite good enough at the time. This was a minor setback, but the larger issue was that the next trials were four years away.

“Everything just came full circle. You are grinding away trying to get to that level, and then you get there and realize the guys are just normal people. It is super cool to see the person behind the swimmer. They understand that they are the older guys, and all the younger guys want to be just like them.”

-Ryan Murphy

There is a Stanley Cup every spring and a World Series each fall, but the only time that swimming gains a following anywhere close to the ones glued to those events comes every four years — the summer Olympics. Instead of winding down and preparing for playoffs each calendar year, Olympic swimmers must complete a four-year plan. This requires an admirable amount of self-control, persistence and plain-old hard work, none of which is a problem for Ryan.

“I love the grind,” Ryan says. “I love getting up in the morning and just getting competitive with the guys. Swimming is my outlet to get out my competitive energy.”

At the next round of Olympic trials in June 2016, and after four years of intense workouts and Cal dual meets, Ryan qualified for Rio de Janeiro, winning the 100-meter backstroke final. He went on to qualify in the 200-meter backstroke and was chosen to compete in the 4×100-meter medley relay as well — all events in which he ended up winning gold.

For a 21 year old, the Olympic Village can feel like a little bit of a playground, with every American athlete packed into one apartment complex. Ryan has fond memories of talking with star golfer Matt Kuchar, meeting the U.S. basketball team players and hanging out with the women’s gymnasts.

“Basically everyone that you saw on TV a lot, we met, even though they were short interactions,” Ryan says. “That was definitely the pinnacle of my patriotism.”

At the same time, arriving in Rio de Janeiro presented new pressures for Ryan. He had been swimming

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

competitively all his life, but all the veteran swimmers he trained with said the meet was unlike anything else. Searching for the key to success, Ryan turned to Adrian.

“(I was) asking him what was so different about this meet, and he said, ‘Honestly, it is the same as any swim meet, but the consequences are just a lot bigger,’ ” Ryan says.

Now having competed in various Olympic meets himself, Ryan can attest that has he found the best way to deal with the stress.

“I approached it with a business-trip-type mentality when I was there,” he says. “The people that can deal with distractions the best are the people that get rewarded at the Olympics.”

This Optimus Prime-like work ethic rewarded Ryan not once but three times throughout his stay in Brazil. Unable to explore much of Rio de Janeiro, Ryan was immediately whisked on a media tour that included cameos on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and ESPN.

When he returned to finish up his remaining Haas classes (macroeconomics, managerial accounting and corporate finance), he experienced a new level of stardom on campus, with constant recognition and whispers from peers.

The tight bond he has formed with his teammates over the years was an influential factor in his decision to come back to Cal for his last year. Cal men’s swimming and diving head coach David Durden added that these few months are necessary to smoothen the transition from undergraduate to professional athlete.

“If he had turned professional after his junior year, that would have been a very hard transition for him to manage,” Durden says. “The things that he has learned in the past six months in his role on the team are going to translate well to the Olympic team or the World Championships team.”

As of now, Ryan has to endure about 3.5 years until swimming once again enters the international spotlight. In this time, he will continue to morph between water and land Ryan. But one thing will remain true: He will remain Optimus Prime, hoping to lead the Bears to an NCAA title later this month and the U.S National Team to success at the World Championships this summer.

Olympians, roll out.

Lucy Schaefer covers men’s swimming. Contact her at [email protected]