The long-awaited, long-delayed youth movement in American men’s swimming didn’t truly gain traction until three things happened:
* Michael Phelps gave the movement permission to start by retiring (again) (for now).
* Ryan Lochte got himself suspended for his infamous night out in Rio de Janeiro.
* Someone else stepped forward and grabbed the mantle.
Say hello to someone else: Ryan Murphy.
The chiseled 21-year-old backstroker is now ready for his star turn, after performing a symbolic baton pass with Phelps last August in Rio. The last race (for now) of Phelps’ career was the 400-meter medley relay, and Murphy led it off by establishing his first world record in the backstroke leg.
That gave Murphy three Olympic gold medals in Rio, adding the relay to victories in the 100 and 200 back. It was a remarkable performance that for many Americans was lost amid the Phelps farewell, Katie Ledecky’s dominance, Simone Manuel’s historic gold, Lilly King’s finger wag and l’affaire Lochte.
How good was Ryan Murphy in Rio? Lochte never won three golds in a single Olympics. In fact, no American male swimmer other than Phelps has since 2004.
And that relay swim did something else as well. It establishes Murphy as the only American male with an individual world record who will compete next week in the U.S. National Championships in Indianapolis – a meet that will serve as the qualifying trials for the FINA World Championships next month in Budapest.
With an eye on the wide-open future of men’s swimming, swimwear giant Speedo USA is announcing Wednesday that it will sponsor Murphy. It’s another layer of acknowledgement that the former California Golden Bear looks like America’s leading man in the long run-up to Tokyo in 2020.
“He would probably tell you it’s more of a team effort, but we do see him as someone over the course of the next couple years being the face of swimming,” Speedo USA president John Graham told Yahoo Sports. “He can be that person.”
For a guy who just turned pro earlier this month, that’s a lot to suddenly foist onto his shoulders. But if anyone has the shoulders for it, it’s Murphy.
He’s built more like an NFL free safety than a swimmer, checking in at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds. And that starts with what might be the thickest set of shoulders in the sport, an important asset for plowing through the water on your back.
“He’s quite a specimen of a guy,” Graham noted.
Beyond physique and accomplishment, Murphy has one other asset that marketers love: He’s a low-risk guy away from the pool.
Think of the two dominant pitchmen in the sport since 2004, Phelps and Lochte. And think of some of the cringe-worthy headlines they made when they weren’t swimming. Phelps had two DUIs and a picture of him sucking on a bong. Lochte had a reality TV show trading on his vapidity, then followed that up by getting suspended by USA Swimming for 10 months last September, eliminating him from consideration for the U.S. World Championship team.
Murphy? The Rio experience certainly didn’t go to his head, and the post-Olympic transition did not send him off the rails. He went back to Cal for his senior year and dominated college competition again, winning the 100 and 200 back for the fourth straight year, and has led a rather mundane life until turning pro last week.
“Honestly, not too much has changed,” Murphy said. “The biggest thing is that more young kids want my autograph or want a picture, which is awesome. I love that. But otherwise it’s been the same – wanting to improve, looking for ways to get better, wanting to build on last year.”
Graham told his Speedo associates that Murphy “follows the North Star.” That’s his term for a grounded person trying to stay true to his goals and values.
“People said, ‘So, he’s boring?’ ” Graham related. “No, boring is not the word. But you’re not going to have to worry too much about him.”
If Murphy is the leader of the next generation, he has plenty of company. Georgia product Chase Kalisz could be poised for a huge summer, as could Florida sprinter Caeleb Dressel and a trio of Texans in freestylers Clark Smith and Townley Haas and butterflyer Jack Conger. All got their first Olympic experience in Rio and could be starting a big push toward Tokyo.
Murphy will be considered close to a dead cinch to make the U.S. World Championship roster in three backstroke events – the 100 and 200, and also the 50, which is not an Olympic event. He may swim a couple of other events as well, perhaps with less an eye on Budapest than on building toward possible additions to the program for 2020.
One is the 100 freestyle, with hopes of being one of the six Americans taken as part of the 400 free relay. Murphy described that event as something he is simply “having fun with” at the moment, but he could be a dark-horse contender this summer.
The other is the 200 individual medley, an event Phelps and Lochte have dominated in the U.S. for almost the entirety of this century. There clearly is room for new blood there, although Kalisz – the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 IM – looks like he will have one spot locked down for Budapest. Murphy hasn’t taken a serious run at the 200 IM in years, but it will be intriguing to see what might happen if he does train for it going forward.
For now, though, three individual backstroke events and a relay are enough to make Ryan Murphy the leading man of American swimming this summer. He might just need some convincing of that.
“There’s no one that’s going to replace Phelps and even Ryan Lochte, too,” Murphy said. “It’s up to me and a lot of the younger guys. I don’t put it on my shoulders solely. We have a good group of guys and we’re really close, and I’m excited about what we can do together.”