Thursday, 01 September 2016 16:32
Clayton Murphy's Dream Comes True, Middle Distance Talent Captures 800m Bronze FeaturedWritten by Christine
BY DAVE HUNTER—Throughout his track career, Clayton Murphy has been misjudged, underestimated, and frankly unappreciated. Despite truly remarkable progression in both the 800m and the 1500m/mile during his three years as a collegian, Murphy's sparkling performances have never seemed to stimulate much excitement within our sport. That should all change now that the 21-year old ran a patient and exquisite race in the Olympic 800m final - capturing the bronze medal after a stirring stretch drive and crossing the line in 1:42.93 to become the first American medalist in the Olympic 800m since American record holder Johnny Gray grabbed the bronze in 1992. Murphy's clocking now positions him as the #3 performer [Gray and Duane Solomon] on the USA all-time list and the #31 performer on the all-time world list.
Raised in a small, rural town in western Ohio, the young Murphy first became interested in running in junior high school. Lacking a sophisticated training program, young Clayton relied mostly on innate talent to perform admirably as a middle distance high school athlete. "Training was very simplified for me in high school," notes Murphy. With good - but not eye-popping - prep marks [1:54.9 for the 800m; 4:11 for the 1600m], Murphy failed to attract truly serious attention from the traditional Division I track powers and headed off to the University of Akron and its blooming track & field program.
Murphy flourished at Akron, where great facilities and good coaching together with Murphy's compliant, eager attitude combined to produce great progression. By his sophomore year, Murphy was knocking on the door of a 4 minute mile, garnering Mid-American conference championships, and climbing NCAA championship podiums. The Zip athlete's 4th place finish at the '15 USATF outdoor nationals put him on the USA national team for several global gatherings. Those not aware of Murphy's emergence suddenly were when last summer he struck 800m gold at the Pan American Games and followed that up with an 800m silver at the NACAC Championships. And when Nick Symmonds balked at signing the customary Terms of Agreement required of all athletes, Murphy suddenly found himself heading to China for the World Championships. In Beijing, he gained world stage experience performing admirably - advancing through the rounds and just missing a spot in the finals. By season's end, Murphy had lowered his PR 800m time to 1:45.59 - a 9 second improvement in just about 18 months.
Track paparazzi, while impressed, were quick to exclaim that Murphy's progression simply couldn't continue. They were wrong. 2016 has been an incredible year for the middle distance star. Racing over varied distances, the college junior captured two NCAA titles [indoor 800; outdoor 1500]; successfully defended his Drake Relays 800m crown [in the process disposing of Boris Berian and Erik Sowinski - World Indoor gold and bronze medalists respectively]; and casually ran down the early leaders in the homestretch to win the Olympic Trials 800m final.
Through it all, Murphy has confounded his competitors and impressed the sport's most respected observers by demonstrating he can win off virtually any pace. With excellent speed - Murphy has clocked an indoor 400 meter relay leg in 45.4 - the young star has a devastating kick and the uncanny ability to know exactly when to unleash it. And in the NCAA 1500m final when the race leaders passed 1200 in 2:53, the unflappable Murphy tucked in, hung on, and simply stepped on the gas in the homestretch and powered on to victory.
Once in Rio, Murphy found his pathway to an Olympic medal to be a little bumpy. In his opening round race, the USA athlete was treated like a rental car as the mid-pack jostling was severe. Only a nimble recovery by Murphy prevented an unprovoked shove 250 meters into the race from sending him sprawling. Composed, the Nike athlete re-established his rhythm and patiently worked his way back through the field and scrambled down the homestretch to grab a little "q" to advance on time. In his semi, Murphy didn't panic when pinned on the rail, executed a couple of nifty, albeit perilous, inside passes and powered by the highly-respected Polish athlete Adam Kszczot on the homestretch to automatically advance to the final. "We had a race plan to be on the outside," states Murphy. "But that's not where it turned out to be. So I kind of got pushed in to the inside rail. I expected it. And with 200 meters to go, I was just planning to to wait and follow David [Rudisha]. I think runners have different strengths. And I think one of my strengths is patience."
In the 800m final, Kenya's Alfred Kipketer - teammate of defending champion Rudisha - got a little carried away at the gun, leading the 7 other finalists through the opening 200 meters in 23.2. The pace soon simmered as the nearly-spent Kipketer took the bell in 49.2. Murphy - stoic as ever - was tucked in on the rail in about 6th, passing 400m in 49.9. "I knew we were going to go out hard that first 200," Clayton reveals. "I knew it was fast when I noticed the clock. And I never looked at a clock after that." Over the final furlong - while Rudisha, pulling away from Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi, was on his way to victory - Murphy was flying. "I actually felt good," explains Murphy. Fourth at the top of the homestretch, Murphy had Pierre-Ambroisse Bosse in his sights. "When I saw Bosse, I had another gear. I knew I was in 4th with 100 to go and I thought I could catch him [Bosse]. With 50 to go, I knew I would catch him," Murphy states. The American passed the French athlete 20 meters from the finish and was gaining on Makhloufi as he crossed the line in 1:42.93 to seize the bronze medal.
Once the 31st Olympiad concludes, the bronze medalist plans a relaxing week back in Ohio before heading to New York to compete in the 5th Avenue Mile. Then it's on to Europe to conclude the outdoor season by competing in several yet-to-be announced competitions at a mixture of distances - 800 meters, 1500 meters, and maybe even 1000 meters. "In Europe, I'll maybe run one or two 1500's and see where I'm at." Uncertain what ultimately may be his best event, Murphy - who has a 1500m PR of 3:36.23 - is content to let future events provide him with the answer. "I don't think there's a great difference between the two events. I'm hesitant to even talk much about which is my better event. I've learned that I'm going let the future denote what's going to be my event next year when it comes to USA outdoors."
After the Tuesday evening 800 meter medal ceremony, the bronze medalist gathered briefly in the stadium outer hall for several photos and some conversation with his family, coaches, and a few friends. Among those in attendance was Clayton's mother Melinda who had traveled over 5000 miles to Brazil from New Paris, Ohio - a small little hamlet of approximately 500 inhabitants near the Indiana border - to witness her son's Olympic performance. Melinda, who raises Boer goats on a small, 30+ acre family farm, is a strong and principled woman and a mother who is wisely reflective on her son's amazing journey from New Paris to Rio, from high school middle distance star to Olympic bronze medalist. "Clayton has talked about the Olympics since he was a little boy. It's amazing the number of people Clayton has touched through all of this," offers Melinda. "Back home, they installed a big screen in the high school gym where several hundred students and others gathered to watch Clayton's final Monday night. My heart told me Clayton could do it. But my head told me he couldn't," she explains. After a pause, the mother of the bronze medalist adds, "You know, not many parents have the opportunity to watch their child attempt to achieve his dream. I did. And Clayton achieved his dream." Clayton's mother did, too.