By Courtney Cheng ’16
Ryan Murphy ’17 graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with a degree in business administration, but like many recent graduates, he’s not quite sure what he wants to do with his degree just yet. Luckily for Ryan, a 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist, he has at least one other option lined up in the meantime. “For now, I’m focusing a lot on my swim career. My plan is to swim through 2020 and see where that goes. I’ll transition into a real job…at some point,” he laughs.
In person, Ryan’s humor—for example, his eagerness to name Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” as his go-to karaoke song and the 2005 rom-com Wedding Crashers his guilty pleasure movie—belie the dedication and hard work that led him on his Olympic journey. Graduating from UC Berkeley was a process Ryan tackled with similar intensity.
Reclaiming Confidence in the Classroom
“When I started looking at colleges, I knew Cal was a great school and had a great swim program,” Ryan recalled. “I wanted to swim in college, and I wanted to go to a place where I could excel academically. Cal checked those boxes.” Ryan’s interest in Berkeley, however, didn’t alleviate his uncertainty about how he would perform there—not in the pool, but in the classroom.
“Honestly, I didn’t have too much confidence in the classroom. I performed well in high school, but I knew coming to Cal that these were the best of the best,” he admitted. In many of Ryan’s business classes, his professors reminded students of the bell curve of Cal: “To get into Cal, you’re in the top 10 percent. And when you get into Haas, it’s taking another top 10 percent.” Ryan mimicked his professors by drawing a bell curve in the air as he spoke. The bell-curve theory stuck with Ryan, inspiring him to become more competitive in the classroom, just as he’d learned to be in the pool.
“I achieved what I achieved by watching other people and learning from them, but not copying them.”
Over his time as a student, Ryan’s passion for Cal progressed from great appreciation for the university to an even greater appreciation for its students, his peers. “I’d walk into a classroom, and I’d talk to someone sitting next to me and they’d tell me about the business they were working on,” he remembered. In those moments, Steve Jobs’ quote about surrounding yourself with great people would come to mind. “[Cal is] just a bunch of people who are ‘A’ people—they want to be the best in the field, at what they’re doing,” Ryan explained.
This environment motivated Ryan’s commitment to academic success. “I went to a lot of office hours, had a lot of late nights studying, had countless group projects that met at 10 p.m.” The key to alleviating his doubts in the classroom, he realized, was treating the classroom like the pool. “I drew a lot of inspiration from seeing the grade distribution after a test. We would get back our tests, and if I was below the average, I would be really upset with myself. When I’d see I was a little bit above the average, I’d say, ‘Okay, that’s a good first step. Now, let’s see how far above the average I can get.’”
Training for the Olympics
In the pool, Ryan’s scores flew far above average. In 2014, Ryan’s first year at Cal, he broke records in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke at the NCAA Championships and played a pivotal role in Cal’s team championship victory. The night of their victory remains one of his greatest memories of Berkeley.
After the race that evening, Ryan had to complete drug testing. When he rejoined his friends, the entire team was waiting. “There were 20 to 25 dudes dancing. Some people were literally on top of the car. The music was bumping and when they saw me they yelled, ‘Murph!’ and went nuts,” Ryan describes. “Winning a title with a team is a feeling that you’re just never going to be able to replicate.”
Through his four years at Cal, Ryan remained an integral part of the Men’s Swimming Team. The team finished second at the 2015, 2016, and 2017 NCAA Championships, and Ryan’s times continued to break his own records—which were also the standing world records at the time. By the time the 2016 Olympic trials rolled around, Ryan felt confident about his standing, but remained realistic. “I never thought before the race that [getting onto the Olympic team] could become reality. You never know how other people are going to swim, but I went into the race really confident.” Two other swimmers were gunning for the same two spots Ryan was eyeing: Matt Grevers (who won Olympic gold in the 100-meter back in 2012) and David Plummer. Ryan and David ultimately secured spots on the team.
At Rio, Ryan won gold in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke races, and during the 4×100-meter men’s medley relay, he helped the team secure another gold—and broke the standing world record. “It was kind of a whirlwind,” Ryan recalled of the historic moment. Because he had broken the record in relay, the final results still rested on the remaining three swimmers. As he climbed out of the pool, he “heard a huge cheer form the USA section. They were all pointing at me and going nuts.”
“I had a similar reaction for, like, 20 seconds,” he remembered, “then I had to get back into the race. But after going through media and having time to think about it, I started tearing up a bit and getting pretty emotional, because [breaking the world record] was something I had dreamed about, and being able to share that with three other guys I was on the relay with was something I’ll never forget.”
Returning to Berkeley
Following not one, nor two, but three Olympic gold medals isn’t an easy feat. Ryan, however, remains relaxed but eager to see what his future will bring. “I’ve been really lucky in my life. I have a great family, a great support system. I was able to come to a great school, have great coaches here and great people around me,” he acknowledges. “Everyday, I’m trying to improve a little bit, just trying to be a little bit better than the day before.”
Improvement obviously includes swimming, but also professional and personal development. Ryan hopes to tap into the connections he made at Haas and Cal, as well as the network he developed through swimming, to create a unique career path for himself. “I have a platform to help others, and that’s something I’m really passionate about. I want to get kids into sports, teach, share my story to show kids you can excel in the classroom and you can excel in the pool. And if you do both, you’re going to set yourself up for a lot of success,” Ryan elaborates. “Down the line, I’d love to create or join a foundation that’s communicating a message along those lines.
“I meet a lot of people who ask, ‘How did you get here? How did you achieve what you achieved?’ And to be honest, I achieved what I achieved by watching other people and learning from them, but not copying them,” Ryan says. “The biggest thing I would tell people—and incoming Cal students—is to create your own path.”