By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Monday, April 10, 2017
Last week in Part I, Ryan Murphy took his fans through his past and road to Cal and Rio -- and now he shares some special words teammate Nathan Adrian offered moments before Murphy dove in on the final relay to set a world record and help win another record gold for Michael Phelps. This week, Ryan gets into specifics, from his incredible Olympic memories -- from incredible people and performances -- to his domination at NCAAs last month in his final collegiate meet for Cal as a senior, as he drills a little deeper in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday, Part II.
1. That relay, your last swim in Rio, and Phelps’ last swim, period -- did you feel a record coming?
Ryan: You know, I’ll tell you a story I have told a couple of times. I did a little warmup swim the day before, just to try to get back into 100 mode. I had been in 100 back mode for two days, then I had the 200 back for two days, and a day off. So I had to switch back to 100 rhythm. I tried to do a 50 opener to get myself back into rhythm. I had done the same thing before the 100 back, and went a 25.3. But this time, I went 26.4 and felt absolutely terrible. I was honestly a little bit nervous going into the race for how bad I had done on that warm-up swim the day before.
2. So how do you go from feeling that to setting a world record?
Ryan: All bets are off once the buzzer goes off at the beginning of a race. It doesn’t matter how you felt the day before, or how the meet is going -- it’s never too late to have that swim that will turn it around, or make you forget how you felt the day before.
3. What was the emotion going into that final relay like?
Ryan: The last race of the meet is always kind of sad, per se, especially when you are having a meet that is going so well for you. You want that emotional high to continue on. At the end, the adrenaline was pumping so hard. I was so excited in my (Olympic relay) opener to have us win -- that was our goal going in, and Cody (Miller), Michael, Nathan (Adrian) and I all did our parts for that. It was really cool to be on deck for that. Everyone was pretty excited for the meet to be over, and you could feel that collective exhale to get out of that super intense mindset. It was cool to do that to end it though, and see so much emotion from Michael.
4. After just missing at Trials in 2012, how do you perform like that at your Olympic debut with not just all golds, but a world record on the world’s best-ever swimmer’s final event?
Ryan: So much work went behind that meet as we talked about (in last week’s 20 Question Tuesday Part 1). The Olympics have been my goal for as long as I have been swimming. How serious I took that meet...I was just a level above what I have ever done before. Literally, I was just 100 percent all in. That’s what made it so special.
5. But to have the world record come on a relay in the final event, Michael up there, the world watching, the Games about to close -- how do you rise in that particular moment where the pressure could not have been higher?
Ryan: It’s hard to give absolutely 100 percent because there is just always a lot of uncertainty in those moments -- there’s no mental protection there. So what you do is you give it your best so you know you have done your best -- that is all you can do. And if you do that, that speaks for itself -- and it usually takes care of itself. But it’s cool to look back now and know in that moment, all that work I did and how serious I took things the whole year -- and how seriously my coaches and teammates took everything -- all paid off.
6. Was it a perfect meet?
Ryan: It was a good meet. A very good meet. But we have places to improve -- that’s something it showed us, how I can get better. So that helped us put a foundation in place for the next four years so I can be better.
7. From NCAAs and being at Cal, to doing relays on National Teams and then the Olympics -- how perfect is the sport for having a relay to end it all?
Ryan: It really is. That’s the beauty of relays, and ending the meet with a relay because it’s about who you represent, who you swim for, and your teammates. At the Olympics it is a little more individualized than it is at NCAAs, because in college you are with the same group every day for years and years. But the Olympic stage is so incredible and you are representing your country as much as anything else, so you have to come together in the moment and do something bigger than yourself. That was a special thing to be a part of in Rio. Not just the race itself, though that (laughs) went well, but being in the ready room seeing these guys you really admire and have followed for years, and how unique you are as a group. I just love that aspect of swimming. And to be on it with Michael, the person who has taken swimming to a whole new level since 2000, is something I’ll always cherish.
8. I’ve been interviewing Nathan more than a decade now, and him being a Cal guy too, did that impact the meaning of that last relay for you as well?
Ryan: Absolutely. Nathan is someone I respect so much. Nathan is someone who takes a little longer to get to know, but once you get to know him and are one of his friends, there is no one who is a better teammate or more supportive. To see him finish it off like he always does was pretty cool. Nathan knows me well enough now to say to me right before the relay, “All right Murph, one last chance to get a world record.” And I am (laughs) like, “Well, you put it like that and my adrenaline’s going now.” He knew the exact time to say it. Not too early to distract me or to make it a pressure thing, but to just kind of tell me, here is your moment, go seize it. You can and will. He’s someone I look up to a lot. His career longevity is so impressive, and a lot of his approach reminds me of how Aaron Peirsol was so great for such a long time.
9. Were you just better technically in the relay to shave the extra time to get the record?
Ryan: In terms of technical stuff, I don’t think there was too much of a difference in that final and the Olympic Trials final. Actually, I was probably more nervous at Trials because just getting there (to the Olympics) is so hard for American swimmers. In Rio for the 100 back, I had saved up a little bit in the prelims and the finals, so I didn’t know what I’d be capable of in the final. That final I was fourth at the first 50, something I am not used too. But I knew from prelims and semis that I could take it into a new gear at the 75 that I wasn’t able to hit at Trials; I knew the last 25 was mine if I could hit that feeling and rhythm again, and had that feeling going into the relay. That’s what happened in (the relay final). So that that was a dream ending.
10. All this well-deserved attention for the 100, but isn’t the 200 your bread and butter for the most part?
Ryan: The 200 is the event I train for more. The 200 takes a lot of training to be able to be the best, if that makes sense. So I was probably more proud of winning the 200 (than 100 backstroke individually) because I had to work on that one a little bit more than I had to work for the 100 in terms of my preparation. That’s something I was really proud of.
11. Winning that 200 back, what was that feeling like in Rio?
Ryan: You kind of just think of the memories and the work that has gone into getting at that point. And then the environment when the moment arrived -- I was lucky enough to have my parents get down into the front row -- not for the 400 medley, but both the 100 and 200 back, and that was really cool. My Mom was jumping up and down. That was super cool seeing how badly they wanted it for me. They know how much I wanted it. To see them, when I know how much they have been through and how close we are as a family and how they know everything about me -- made it mean even more.
12. After seeing and reading how well your family handled all the attention, no wonder you do so well -- that must make you smile to hear how many folks contacted your parents in person or electronically?
Ryan: They were (laughs) overwhelmed by it a little bit but it’s all coming from a good place, and they realize that as much as anyone. My mom is funny; she’s so nice, she wanted to send personalized messages to everyone. That night she said, “I have 300 texts I haven’t responded to yet. I am going to go sit down, and respond to all these people with a special message.” That’s just the type of lady she is.
13. Maybe that’s part of the reason everyone roots for you, like your parents, you’re just so nice -- easy to root for?
Ryan: I am sure there are people from other countries (laughs) who might not be cheering for me. But that means a lot to hear that, thank you. As great as it is to be competing for these types of titles, at the end of the day, I think character is more important than all of that. That’s something I take really seriously in trying to be a good person. That’s who you are for life.
14. As much as it was hard to see Phelps lose in the fly, it being your old club teammate, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling, from the University of Texas, made it easy to applaud him, didn’t it?
Ryan: That’s Joseph -- that race, that moment right there. In terms of the entire package, he is one of the best I have ever seen. How physically gifted he is, I literally don’t know what in his body isn’t (laughs) double jointed. And then his attitude. He has such confidence. It’s hard to shake him. That’s what you saw in that Olympic final. He walked out and knew he would win it. He swam like he was the best 100 butterflyer, and that’s him. So I wasn’t surprised to see that. And you saw the respect he and Michael had for each other after. That made it mean even more.
15. So many people have said how hard it is to come back from the Olympics to swim in the college season -- and you had the goal of repeating as a four year NCAA champ in both the 100 and 200 backstroke -- was it that big of a challenge coming back?
Ryan: It was definitely hard the first couple weeks. I didn’t want to (laughs) do any schoolwork. Once that first round of tests came through, and I was planning out my schedule for the next week, I realized I have a test coming up and I knew nothing! Definitely a lot of cramming went into that initial semester back. I am someone who is motivated by the intense times and the hard times, having tests coming up motivated me in school. The same thing for swimming; once we got back into hard training, I was motivated again. I don’t want to have bad practices, I don’t want to get beat in practices. As the schedule picked up, so did I.
16. Being a team leader at Cal this season in particular, that was more responsibility that you welcomed, wasn’t it?
Ryan: My focus this year was the team. Taking on a leadership role on this team is something I took seriously. My thought process going into (NCAAs) was to lead and inspire my teammates. I was looking out for all the other guys on the team to make sure they weren’t in their own heads, making sure they had what they needed to perform to the best of their abilities. I wanted to win my races to score points for the team, but the focus was on how to help my teammates be their best.
17. Which individual race was harder for you?
Ryan: I didn’t feel great the entire meet in the 100. I didn’t really have that pop. I couldn’t get my tempo up to what I wanted it to be. Since the easy speed wasn’t there, I had to power my way through the races. I was a little bit tired by that time, but you’re not going to feel good at that meet at a certain point. So before the 100 back (final), my thoughts were, “All right, grit it out. Do it for your teammates sitting in the bleachers right there.”
18. And the 200?
Ryan: I was definitely more comfortable -- in terms of how I was feeling at the meet it was definitely a more comfortable race. I said this to a couple of interviewers, looking at my tempo and the rhythm of my stroke, I was swimming like I would at a long-course meet. That happens. And it’s fine that it happens. I swam that race the same way I did it at the Olympics -- not necessarily the best in terms of short-course performances, but that’s what I had at that point. My thought process was to try to outlast these guys.
19. Cal alum Tony Ervin -- how inspiring was his Rio swim and just his overall growth and attitude as a person?
Ryan: That was unreal. The stars aligned for Tony at the right time. What an incredible race. What he has done going from 2000 and then winning in 2016 -- how much that says about his talent is just unreal, I was so excited for Tony. He was one of the guys in our suite -- our suite was the entire Cal group, and to have him be a part of that was really cool to see. And honestly it was pretty unexpected. And when it’s unexpected it’s even more exciting. He was incredible.
20. What growth in one year -- do you feel that you have grown, too?
Ryan: I think I really have. The main thing I learned is no matter how much is going on, you are still going to have a support system around you, that’s the main thing I had to go through the past year. This past year provided more stress than years past in terms of swimming stress or school stress, or other outside stresses that were going on. I always have my family to bounce ideas off of, and to calm me down when I get riled up after stuff. Learning how important it is to have great people around you is something that helps you keep everything going and in perspective as you chase your dreams and goals.