The Recruit

by Casey Barrett

Bolles backstroke king, Ryan Murphy, chooses Cal… Was it the right decision? 

It’s a nice problem to have. Universities lining up, begging you to join them, offering you an all expense paid education, assuring you that as a Bear, Gator, Cardinal, Longhorn, or Tiger, you will win many NCAA titles. Girls will be lining up to meet you. Whatever campus you choose, you will be a big man on it. Champagne problems indeed…

But it’s still a hell of a choice. And despite what they say, you can indeed go wrong.

The bluest of the blue chips this year is a young man from Jacksonville, Florida named Ryan Murphy. Also commonly known as The Next Great American Backstroker. His age group and high school career to this point have been pretty much perfect. Young Murphy placed 6th and 4th respectively in the 100 and 200 back at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer. Many thought he had a great shot to make the Team. Four years from now, he will. Whether he will be on the podium in Rio has a lot to do with where he swims the next four years.

Yesterday he chose the defending champions, Cal Berkeley. If gold in Rio is indeed his ultimate goal, not everyone is convinced this was the best call.

To be clear – Murphy is going to have an insanely decorated career as a Golden Bear. In his freshman year, he will likely win both backstrokes at NCAAs. (His times from Junior Nationals last year would have already put him in the hunt in the A final…) But beyond the back, Murphy is a complete swimmer, the perfect college point machine. He’s going to be a sub-20 50 freestyler and a 43+ 100 freestyler before he’s out of high school, meaning he’ll be on every sprint relay. He’s also already a 1:45 200 IMer, meaning he’ll score big points in his third individual event.

Dave Durden is busy building a dynasty out at Cal, and it’s possible his Murphy-led Bears may win NCAAs every year he’s there. The kid is going to go down as one of the greatest swimmers in NCAA history. Barring injury or an absurd shift in character, this is all but assured. (Ryan also has a 4.4 GPA at Bolles, so safe to say academics isn’t a worry either…)

But that’s not really the point, is it? NCAAs is the small pool minor leagues. A warm-up for the big pool, where the big fish swim. If that’s where Murphy’s ambitions truly lie, a case can be made that he just made a big mistake. Because many out there are asking – why didn’t he go to Florida? Wasn’t it obvious? If a young backstroker wants to be on an Olympic podium, he would be wise to put on the blinders and head straight for Coach Gregg Troy. It goes way beyond Lochte. Take a look at this quick list of recent Gainesville-based backstroke greats: Elizabeth Beisel, Gemma Spofforth, Ben Hesen, Omar Pinzon, Rex Tulius, Sarah Peterson, Teresa Crippen, Arkady Vyatchanin… To name a few.

Murphy probably wouldn’t win as many NCAA titles at Florida. The relays he’d be on wouldn’t be as fast. But again, is that the top priority? That’s not to say that Durden can’t shepherd Murphy to the top of the podium in Rio. He certainly did the job with Nathan Adrian in London. But it’s worth noting that he’s never done it before, not with a backstroker. Coach Troy, on the other hand, has a resumé of Olympic medalists that needs a few pages.

Did Murphy’s choice come down just to those two schools? Not at all. At various times, I heard he was leaning towards Stanford, that he wanted to swim for Eddie Reese at Texas, that Brett Hawke made a huge impression at Auburn. Every suitor was rolling out the red carpet and Murphy owed it to himself to walk down each one.

Of course, if you’re talking about a kid with a 4.4 GPA, it can’t just be about the athletics. With the possible exception of Stanford, academically, Berkeley’s a cut above the others. Isn’t life after swimming the real top priority? Ha. Good luck convincing a 17-year-old stud recruit of that. Maybe Murphy has a lot more perspective than I did at that age, when a big part of my college choice was based on the attractiveness of the student body, but I’m guessing he put more stock in the team than he did the classroom.

The team – that appears to be Durden’s true budding genius. He’s all about celebrating the collective, getting everyone on board, and winning as one. These are lovely qualities, and terrific lessons for a young man to learn from a coach.

Problem is, at the Olympics, on top of that podium, you’re all alone.