The Freshman

by Casey Barrett

Ryan Murphy’s rookie year at Cal… 

The kid just keeps following the script. He’s been the best since he was a boy, and every year, at every level, he keeps fulfilling his seemingly unlimited promise. And so it went his first year at Cal. A year ago, I wrote a piece called The Recruit after Murphy signed at Berkeley. It seemed fitting to follow up a year later with this one.

The box score on his just-about-perfect NCAA Championships: Five titles, three relays / two individual. NCAA record in the 200 back. Just .03 off the NCAA record in the 100 back. Stunning splits on every relay, with wins in the 200 free, the 200 medley, the 400 medley, and a second in the 400 free. And perhaps most impressive of all, in terms of personal leaps forward, a 1:42.24 in the 200 IM, which secured a spot in the big final and got Cal rolling right out of the gate.

Between his relay load and his individual races, there wasn’t a swimmer at the meet that accounted for more points than Murphy. He’s the most valuable swimmer on the best team in the nation. With that in mind, it’s flat out disrespectful that Kevin Cordes, a swimmer who scored zero points on relays, was named Swimmer of the Meet over Murphy, or Florida’s Marcin Cieslak, for that matter. (The Gators could easily make a case for Cieslak, who claimed two gold and a silver in his individual races, and also contributed big time on the relays, with prelims swims as well. Yet Florida, did not win any of those relays…)

Cordes was predictably impressive in his pair of record-setting breaststroke performances and all, but you’re not the swimmer of any meet if you DQ your team’s medley relay on the all-important first day. As everyone knows, relays win the meet at NCAAs; therefore Cordes is undeserving of this year’s honor.

But let’s stay positive here, and focus on what Murphy did right, not what the jump-happy Mr. Cordes might have done wrong. It’s hard to find a flaw in any one of his swims. He led off the medley relays in 20.90 and 44.91, and Cal never looked back. He swam the second legs on the sprint free relays. In the 200, on night one, he went 18.75. In the 400, in the last race of the meet, he split 41.67, which was not only the fastest on his foursome, but the third fastest split among all competitors. In his second best stroke.

Of course, it was his individual backstroke races where he shined most. As expected (and predicted last year in that Recruit story), he swept both backstrokes. 44.6 and 1:37.3 is over-the-top fast, but for Murphy these times just scratch the surface of what’s in store in the years to come. Before he leaves Cal, Ryan Murphy will very likely be a 43 / 1:35 backstroker. Times that, not too long ago, were scoring points in freestyle at NCAAs…

Now comes the hard part. The subject of my story last year was not how he would swim in the small pool, but how he would fare in the big pool, where it really matters. NCAAs might be the most exciting three days of swimming on earth, but they are still the minor leagues when it comes to making your mark on the sport. All anyone remembers, and all sponsors will pay for, is international long course success.

So, this summer will say a lot. Will Ryan Murphy go 52+ and 1:54, and continue to stay on script? Or will he miss those walls and swim back to his best long course times from his Bolles days? A year ago I questioned whether he would have been better off at Florida with Coach Troy, pointing out the outsized success of Gator backstrokers on the big stage, and the short list of big time backstrokers who have come from Dave Durden’s Berkeley Bears.

It’s too soon to withdrawal that question completely, but it’s getting hard to question anything Durden is doing these days. With three team titles in four years, he’s created a new dynasty at Cal, and Murphy is now at the center of that dominance. Here’s hoping – and betting – that the can’t-miss-kid continues to translate his success this summer in the big pool where it matters most.