TO THE OUTSIDER LOOKING IN, Clayton Murphy was anything but a favorite when he showed up at the Olympic Trials. He hadn’t finished higher than 3rd in a 2-lap race all year. And then there was the part that only insiders knew — he came to Eugene nursing a hurt hamstring.
“It has been a ‘let’s get to the line and see what happens’ every day,” he said of his Trials rounds.
He had to back off his usual routine and focus on two things — rehab and racing. Somehow, he and his crew made it work in a big way, as he stormed to victory in the final, covering the distance in a dazzling 1:43.17, the No. 3 performance of his career and his fastest in 3 years.
For the 26-year-old Ohio native, it seems a lifetime since his breakout as a collegian back in 2015–16. As an Akron soph he took his best from 1:50.03 all the way to 1:45.59, winning a Pan-Am gold and making it as far as the semis at the Worlds.
The next season, at age 21, he turned promise into performance, winning a rare NCAA 800/1500 double and producing a PR to win the Trials 2-lapper in 1:44.76.
In Rio he was even better, taking his PR to 1:44.30 in the semis and capturing the bronze in 1:42.93, becoming the No. 3 American ever.
Murphy’s trajectory seemed to aim ever upwards, but fate threw him a curve. In ’17, after opening up with a stunning 1:43.60 at Mt. SAC, he struggled the rest of the season. At USATF, he failed to make the 800 final and finished dead last in the 1500.
So in August of that year he made the decision to leave his college coach, Lee Labadie, and move west to train with Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. Focusing more on the 800, he won the ’18 USATF title and hit a season best of 1:43.12 in London. That put him back atop the U.S. Rankings and No. 8 in the world.
In ’19, he held his own, taking 2nd at USATF, but a last-place finish in the WC final in 1:47.84 left him more than unsatisfied. Following Doha, with the USADA ban of Salazar and Nike pulling the plug on NOP, Murphy moved back home and reconnected with Labadie.
At this year’s Trials, he called it the “most comfortable option for myself and my wife [Olympic sprinter Ariana Washington]. It gave us a fresh start. As a team and as a unit, we made the best decision for us and what we both could do to have the most success in our lives.”
He admits that he may have been a beneficiary of the pandemic, in terms of his preparation for the Games. “Obviously, not glad there was a pandemic or coronavirus, but the extra year did allow for a little bit smoother of a transition. Nothing as far as the actual idea changed, just some of the timeline that I had to adjust a bit based on COVID and different things like that. It was a little bit of a blessing in disguise to make that move a little more smoothly.”
After his Trials win bore out the wisdom of the return to Ohio, he followed up a short training block with a quick 3-race tour of Europe, producing a set of so-so results: 3rd at the Gyulai Memorial (1:45.20), 7th in Monaco (1:44.41), 6th in Gateshead (1:45.72).
“I was gone for 11 days,” he says. “I got back home last week… just really focused on resolving a few little things that we want to work on in the front half and the back half of the race. That’s partially why I went over to Europe.”
Now as he prepares to board the plane for his second Olympics, Murphy says, “I’m really just preparing for the stresses of the races, of three rounds again. Going through that process and physically just trying to stay sharp and not overdoing anything right now.”
The worries about the spread of C19 in the Olympic Village are not something he’s going to burn energy over. “I’m just super-excited to finally have a Games and go through with what we’ve got to do. If that means taking a COVID test every 12 hours… I’m just excited to be able to compete again and just follow whatever they think is best for us.”
He adds, “With the protocols we have to follow and the limitations of not necessarily being able to attend Opening and Closing Ceremonies, [or] being able to see other events, it kind of locks you down and allows you to do one of two things, either get into your own head and sit in the Village and wonder, or sit in the Village and really focus on what you go there to do.
“You’re limited on when you can come in, when you can go out. Everything’s controlled. For me, it’s just about getting there and taking care of what I need to take care of, which is performing to the best I can perform and really showcase what I’ve been trying to train for over the last 5 years leading into this.
“Right now, I just want to get there and I’m excited to compete.”
Only this time, Murphy is no longer the wide-eyed 21-year-old who showed up and surprised everybody in Rio.
“I’ve become a lot more confident in myself. It’s less about ‘Can I do this?’ or [being] excited about doing it, it’s more about, ‘I want to be here, I can be here and I deserve to be here.’
“Now is the time — I guess the way to put it is — to show off what I’ve been working hard for. I think there’s a lot of what you guys don’t see behind the scenes that we put in, a lot of hours, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of things we give up to perform well and I think I’m starting to understand that those pay off in the end.
“So for me, just a lot more excitement about putting everything together, versus what could I do. ‘Maybe I could do it’ versus ‘I know I can do it.’ Now it’s just about going there and doing it.”