EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of HERO Sports' series profiling some of the top collegiate athletes in America — athletes who could earn Olympic roster invitations this summer in Brazil. These are the names we think American sports fans will know well by this fall. Last week we talked to Georgia swimmer Chase Kalisz and Texas A&M track and field star Shamier Little. Today we talk to Akron track and cross country standout Clayton Murphy, who won the 800 meters gold medal last year in the Pan American Games.
When Clayton Murphy woke up on New Year’s Day in 2015, there’s no way he could have imagined what the upcoming year had in store.
The University of Akron track and cross country standout was very competitive in conference competition. But when he woke up that day, roughly two months short of his 20th birthday, there’s no way he could have dreamed this up.
By the end of the year, he’d won a gold medal in the 800 meters in the Pan-American Games in Toronto, a silver medal in the NACAC Championships in Costa Rica, and made the semifinals of the World Championships in Beijing—running in a field chocked full of former Olympic medalists and world record holders.
“I have a binder in my bedroom where I write down my goals, and even if you’d looked at it in March, you would have seen that after NCAA indoors, my ultimate goal was just to make the World Championship team,” Murphy told HERO Sports this week. “I think in January my goal was probably just to make the MAC travel roster and probably to qualify for the NCAA indoors.”
Murphy’s story is one of ascension. He freely admits he was a bit of a raw talent coming out of high school. He dominated the prep scene in his home state of Ohio, and came to Akron still trying to find himself in a competitive running sort of way. Enter Zips distance coach Lee Labadie, an accomplished miler in his own right from his days at the University of Illinois. He pushed the right buttons, so to speak, and now Murphy has had to adjust his goals–frequently.
What has been interesting is how Murphy—who once thought of himself as more of “long distance” style of runner—has become such a talent in the 800 meters. The 800 is a rear-end kicking event in track and field. It’s a brutal blend of speed and pace and strategy and grit. It’s the kind of event a U.S. Marine or Navy Seal would embrace, because it’s about intestinal fortitude.
The 800, as it turns out, has chosen Murphy–and next week he'll compete for a national title in the event during NCAA Indoors. He’s still outstanding on the college level when it comes to the 1500 meters and in cross country, but he may have found his international event in the 800. Time will tell.
Remember that illustrious binder? It now features goals like “make the Olympic team.” My … how one year can change things.
“If you want to be competitive in track, everybody has that goal in mind … making the Olympics,” Murphy said. “Now it’s starting to look like more of a reality than just a dream. Obviously though, you have to make the finals first, and you have to be healthy, and before all of that I want to do well at NCAA indoors and I want to qualify for the NCAA outdoor finals. I have those kinds of goals in front of me, too, and I want to help my team (Akron). But I do have the Olympics as a goal, too.”
Thanks to his times from 2015, Murphy already has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this summer, but once he’s there in Oregon for the trials, he knows nothing is guaranteed. The U.S. team is brutally tough to make, and after that the Olympic stage is the toughest it has been in the history of the 800. Murphy has already seen firsthand the world’s greatest in Kenyan David Rudisha, who was in Beijing last summer and who set the world record at the 2012 London games (1 minute, 40.91 seconds).
“Yeah, the guys on the team (at Akron) said I should have gotten a selfie with Rudisha,” Murphy said. “I told them, ‘Uh, yeah guys. That would have looked professional’.”
Murphy would love to be an Olympian, he’s been on the world stage before. But he knows the 800 is once again going to be a huge challenge. It’s going to be challenging just to make the U.S. Olympic team—as only three 800 runners were chosen in 2012. But Murphy will be in the mix for one of those spots, for certain.
“I mean, to be in the field for the 800, you’re going to have to go against the 4th and 5th place runners from the last Olympics (Americans Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon),” Murphy said. “Then if you make the field, you’re racing against the world record holder and some of the fastest juniors who’ve ever run the event. When I was sitting in the waiting room at Worlds last summer, I just looked around.
“It makes you sit back and be grateful for how lucky you are just to be there. And to be able to be there again with some of the best 800 runners would be amazing.”
But that’s just the thing, and we mentioned it in the beginning. Murphy has a history of rising to the occasion. When you get into the right ‘pack’ in a grueling 800-meter contest, interesting things can happen. It might be an elbow in the ribs, or it might be that the pack propels each individual into a new realm, in terms of speed. If you’re in that correct pack … amazing things can happen.
This summer, we’ll know if the consummate ‘ascender’ has risen once again.