Unbelievable: Clayton Murphy Goes From 1:56 800m Runner to Olympic Bronze Medallist Talking World Record in Four Years

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By Weldon Johnson
August 15, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO — Four years ago, Clayton Murphy did not watch the Olympic 800-meter final live on TV. He saw it later on YouTube. He was coming off his junior year of high school, which was the first year he decided running was “more than a fun thing to do in high school” and “kind of took it more seriously and decided to become a Division I runner.” At the end of that year, his PBs were 1:56 and 4:16. Tonight, he’s the third-fastest American ever at 800 and an Olympic bronze medallist.

None of that had really sunk in as Murphy performed his media obligations. He cracked a smile in the mixed zone telling the story of how once he crossed the line, he ran to the moat surrounding the track and he was thrown the American flag. Some people yelled at him that it was okay to smile.

While Murphy’s face did not show much emotion in the mixed zone, a big part of his plan tonight was to enjoy the moment.

Murphy Celebrates at the Finish

Murphy Celebrates at the Finish

“I just wanted to have fun with it and enjoy the minute and forty-some seconds I was out on the track because you never know how many more times you’re going to run [on the] Olympic track,” he said.

Murphy’s thoughts about enjoying the Olympic final were right on the money, as David Rudisha was the only finalist from London 2012 able to make it to the Rio final.

Murphy’s goal was to make the final and he said, “a medal for me was going to be icing on the cake.” While Murphy may have outwardly talked most about enjoying the process and the moment, that didn’t mean the competitive side of him didn’t have bigger goals. He said he had “a little bit of a plan to get out hard and go after it” and that “last night I ran the race through a couple times and ran it through with a medal [in mind].”

Murphy’s agent Paul Doyle took it a step further. He told us after the press conference that Murphy had very detailed race plans in his head, and some of them included him winning the race and setting the American record. Very bold for a 21-year-old who came into his first Olympics with a 1:44.76 personal best.

The Race: “It’s all about racing people and getting medals”

“I kind of expected it to be fast, but I just wanted to be up front. I didn’t care if it was slow or I didn’t care if it was fast. It’s all about racing people and getting medals,” Murphy said of his thoughts beforehand.

Once the gun went off, Murphy showed the calm demeanor and relaxation he is known for coupled with a ruthless determination. “I knew we were out fast, I saw the clock at 200, but after that I didn’t care what it was. I didn’t care how I felt. I was going to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”

Murphy was in contention with 200m to go, where he bumped fellow American Boris Berian, but he kept moving forward. Then he said he bumped Kenyan Alfred Kipketer with 150m to go and got “knocked off balance a little,” but kept moving forward. As he hit the homestretch, Murphy saw the medals were a real possibility.  

“I knew I had at least one more gear and I just kept rolling, rolling, rolling. When I saw third was there I tried to get through the line as quick as possible,” he said.

The result was the bronze medal and the third-fastest time by an American as Murphy skipped the 1:43s entirely.

Clayton Murphy Celebrates

Clayton Murphy Celebrates

Murphy Praises Coach Lee LaBadie for Progressing Him “Slowly” the Last 3-4 Years

Murphy was quick to praise his coach Lee LaBadie. Murphy credited him for “being able to progress me slowly the last three or four years in college [at the University of Akron].” While we don’t see anything slow at all about Murphy’s progression from being a 1:56 guy four years ago to a 1:42 Olympic bronze medallist, Murphy noted that LaBadie has kept him healthy and he has been able to improve each year.

Murphy did not think tonight’s race was perfect. “I think I executed it to 90% of what I wanted,” he said.

Murphy then turned his talk to a territory that is almost unheard of in American circles: the world record.

Murphy said it was an honor to run against the greatest 800 runner of all time, David Rudisha, and Rudisha praised Murphy afterwards. They first time they raced was in the prelims here but they were seen smiling and talking before today’s race.

Murphy Talks the World Record

Don’t think Murphy is totally in awe of Rudisha, however. Murphy did acknowledge, “He’s still two seconds faster [than me],” but then said, “I think I have a lot in me. I was the bronze medallist. I wasn’t the gold medallist and I didn’t break the world record. There are still large milestones still to achieve. I really want to go after them.”

Up first, Murphy had more pressing concerns. He, like most 21-year-olds, was “super hungry” after the race and said he needed some sleep.

*****

Screenshot (1717)Murphy’s path to the bronze medal was not straightforward. He won the 1500 this year at NCAAs and then twice unsuccessfully raced the 1500 after NCAAs trying to hit the Olympic qualifying mark. That made his decision to focus on the 800 at the Olympic Trials much easier.

Then in round 1 here, Murphy was only 4th in his heat, and had to advance to the semis on time. He rewatched the race and said he felt round 1 was more about “bad luck” than anything else as a guy got pushed in front of him 250 into the race, and then he got “arm barred 400m in.” Murphy felt that his trouble in the first round made him run “with a chip on his shoulder” in the semis, and his success there “boosted his confidence” for the final.

As for chasing the 1500m qualifying time before these Games and his decision to run the 800 here, Murphy said, “You could ask me next week and I could be a 1500 runner. You could ask me tomorrow – I’ll be an 8. At this point, I’m an 800-meter runner tonight and I’m enjoying the moment.” He definitely should do that.


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