Ryan Murphy, backstroke king in Rio, motivated by foes foreign and domestic

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Nine years later, Ryan Murphy still remembers that moment from the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials for the London Games.

After his junior year in high school, Murphy made both backstroke finals and finished a promising fourth and sixth as the youngest man in each field. The top two per event made the team for London, but Murphy, already a prep star, seemed destined for a future Games.

After one of those races in Omaha, Matt Grevers, who a month later became the fifth straight American man to win the 100m back gold medal, came up to the young Murphy. You’re next, Grevers told him.

“It made me feel so confident that someone who went on to win the Olympic gold that year saw that potential in me,” Murphy said.

Murphy now sees himself in Grevers’ position (though Grevers is still swimming, at age 35).

Murphy, who swept the backstrokes at the Rio Olympics, including breaking the 100m back world record, is racing the next generation of U.S. backstrokers at this weekend’s Pro Series meet in San Antonio.

Namely Shaine Casas, a Texas A&M junior who is ranked second and third in the U.S. in the backstrokes since the start of 2019. On Saturday night, Murphy surged past Casas in the final 50 meters, winning by .77 of a second in the 100m back.

Justin Ress, another backstroker eyeing his first Olympics, swam faster than both of them at the Pro Series site in Richmond, Va.

While swimmers such as Michael Phelps have looked at domestic competition as picture-in-the-locker rivalry, Murphy is following the path set by Grevers and others in his events.

Memorably in Rio, past U.S. Olympic champion backstrokers wrote letters that were presented to that Olympic back crew the day before the Games.

“In the U.S. we’ve come to expect having a lot of really, really good backstrokers,” said Murphy, who in Rio extended a run of the U.S. men winning the 100m and 200m back titles at every Olympics starting with the 1996 Atlanta Games. “We’re allowed to have two guys on the podium.”

Since Rio, Murphy made plenty more podiums, but did not reach the top step individually at the world championships in 2017 or 2019. Chinese Xu Jiayu and Russian Yevgeny Rylov gobbled all of the gold medals in the 100m and 200m backs.

The 2019 World 100m back final was the toughest defeat to digest. Murphy led at 50 meters but finished fourth. One of the medalists told the American something afterward that irked him. Murphy declined to name who said it or what was said.

“I hate to make races personal, but I personally want to beat that guy,” Murphy said in 2019.

Murphy returned to Cal Berkeley, where he formerly raced collegiately and has been coached by Dave Durden for the last seven years.

“This is probably the most bought in I’ve been to my training plan as long as I’ve been at Cal,” he said.

In other events Saturday, world-record holder Regan Smith prevailed in the deepest final of the night, beating the next three fastest Americans in the women’s 100m back since the start of 2019.

Smith, who lowered the record to 57.57 at the 2019 Worlds, clocked 59.75 to hold off world bronze medalist Olivia Smoliga by .19 of a second. Kathleen Baker, the Olympic silver medalist and former world-record holder, was third, .22 behind.

Nic Fink won a battle among the three fastest Americans in the 200m breaststroke since the start of 2019. Fink clocked 2:11.28, beating Will Licon by .02. Licon owns the top time over the last two years of 2:07.62.

Four of the top five U.S. women in the 200m breast since the start of 2019 raced between San Antonio and Richmond on Saturday.

Emily Escobedo produced the top time — 2:23:46 — in Richmond. Lilly King, the Olympic champ and world-record holder in the 100m breast, won the San Antonio final in 2:25.83. Annie Lazor, not racing this weekend, remains fastest in the nation over the last two years with a 2:20.77, followed by King.

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