Stronger than ever Before
Barry Murphy is at a curious crossroads as he contemplates another Olympic bid, writes John O'Brien
THE week he flew to Denmark for the European Short Course Championships, Barry Murphy found his swimming career and his academic life coalescing in the worst possible disharmony. The night before he hooked up with the Ireland team at Dublin Airport, he was due to submit a major assignment for the master's in digital marketing he is completing at the Smurfit School of Business. A daunting challenge for a self-confessed procrastinator.
"The deadline for the assignment was midnight on the Monday," he says two weeks on, chilled out and relaxed now. "We were flying out at 8.30 the following morning. I submitted it at 11.30 and I was in the airport at 4.30am. Cutting it close, man."
The demands of such a tight schedule didn't freak him out. His default instinct was to write off the championships, half-wondering why he was even making the journey. And then something odd and wonderful happened. Weirdly and inexplicably, things began to click. When it came to the 50m breaststroke, his specialist discipline, his competitive sharpness kicked in and he began to sense he had a chance.
Even when he crept into the final as eighth fastest, marooned in the outside lane, he didn't despair. He had worked hard all year on ensuring a good start and finish and he knew the bit in the middle, hanging in there, would be critical. On the blocks, a voice in his head suggested he would nail it and, gloriously, he did, touching the wall a fraction behind the Frenchman, Giacomo Perez-Dortona, but, crucially, a fingertip ahead of the Swede, Johannes Skagius. A bronze medal. Murphy had swum the race of his life.
A medal, he says, that had been 18 years in the making. "I was thinking afterwards if this had come earlier, I might have taken it for granted and not appreciated it as much as I do now. It's humbling. Somebody said you were so close to a silver medal, like a hundredth of a second, but I was the same from finishing fourth. So I didn't get bent out of shape by missing second. Fuck it. I got a medal. I'm delighted with that."
To explain what it meant, he takes you back 10 years. He was 17 years old, watching spellbound as Andrew Bree lit up the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin when winning silver at the same Championships, convinced this is where his own destiny lay. But Irish swimming hasn't had enough of those kind of days to savour. Not on the men's side anyway. Before Bree there was Gary O'Toole. Since Bree there has been, well, just Murphy really.
He knows there are talented young swimmers out there, but pushing through to the next level is the issue. Last year he travelled with a male Irish team to a meet in the US and, with one or two exceptions, they were ruthlessly blown away. Too easy, he thinks, to fall into a comfort zone in Ireland, happy to be top dog here only then to receive a shock to the system when exposed to the top swimmers abroad.
"We need more trips like that," he says. "Take guys away and show them. Swimming at world level is starting to get ridiculous now. They're getting faster and better all the time. Like, you might be a hotshot here. But you need to get your act together if you want to progress. We definitely have guys here who are talented and ambitious, but they need a bit more education about what it takes to get up there."
During his own formative years, there was little in place to help a young talented athlete shape the future course of his career. Murphy trained at the NAC until the roof blew off -- literally -- and then decided his immediate future lay abroad. He visited Tennessee University, where Bree was stationed, and noticed they had as many 50m pools within an acre -- no roofs required -- as existed in the whole of Ireland at the time. A sorority pool party was in full swing on the day he visited. "Where do I sign?" he thought.
He arrived in Tennessee in 2005 and immediately set his gaze towards the speck of Beijing in the distance. For all the progress he made, though, achieving the qualifying time proved elusive. He was breaking Irish records, swimming faster than any Irish swimmer before him, but the 'A' standard remained an agonising two-tenths of a second beyond his reach. In the same boat as Melanie Nocher and Aisling Cooney. They went to Beijing, though. Murphy didn't. Nearly six years on, it remains a touchy subject.
He blamed himself mostly for not achieving the time, but the double-standard of sending others on 'B' times and not him was irritating. As if they were suggesting that, at 23, his swimming career was effectively on the slide. "It felt like they were saying, 'What's he going to gain by being there? This will probably be his last Olympics anyway'. They were already talking about Team 2012 at that stage and I wasn't part of it. That was hard to take."
In a way, though, that crushing disappointment was the making of him. Only that he had another year left in Tennessee and he was committed to their swimming programme, he figures he'd have made his peace with the sport and swapped all the sacrifices and frustrations for a quieter life. As it was, he returned to America with a point to prove, determined to channel the anger and sense of injustice he felt into making him a better swimmer.
The following year, at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Murphy made a huge statement about his talent. He became the first Irishman to qualify for a world final, breaking the 50m breaststroke record for the Championships in the process, and the first Irishman to break 50 seconds in the 100m freestyle. He equalled the national 100m breaststroke record Bree had set in Beijing and threw in a new Irish 50m freestyle record for good measure. To those who had doubted him a year earlier, it was a blistering response.
"Getting to a world semi-final was huge," he says. "It showed if I really applied myself, I could be successful. Basically, after 2008 I took ownership of my situation. I moved away from my coach at Tennessee and started working with my friend Andy [Thirlwell] who was my room-mate at the time. I did feel I had a point to prove that year, a new hunger. I was in a good place."
He looks back on those pre-London days fondly now. After Tennessee he left for the bracing cold of Michigan, warming himself by training under a world-class coach, Mike Bottom, and among swimmers he'd watched winning Olympic medals on television -- Milorad Cavic, George Bovell, Duje Draganja. Ultimately, that didn't translate into good performances at the 2012 Games, but that didn't destroy him. Not like the no-show in China four years earlier.
"Mentally I was in a good place," he explains. "It's a home Games and you want to go there and kick ass. But I hadn't been swimming well all year. I'd a great first year under Mike, then the whole year I couldn't recreate that form. And that's frustrating. You've trained your whole life for this. Two years in advance you commit everything. All the financial investment, the parents helping me out. You want to make it worth everyone's while. I'd trained well and I'd learned so much from those guys. In the end, it just didn't work out. Sometimes that happens."
And so he finds himself at a curious juncture now. Winning a medal in the European Championships might have been the realisation of a lifetime dream, but it tantalisingly suggests too that there is more to come. He's two years back in Dublin now, back at home in Drumcondra, and likes the set-up here, the outstanding support he gets from the Institute of Sport that wouldn't be available in the US. The downside is the lack of good training partners to push him in the NAC, but for all the other benefits he'll live with that.
Soon he'll have another major decision to grapple with: to fold or to take another spin on the Olympic carousel. He'd love to be a two-time Olympian, of course, but it's not that simple. Can he stomach two more years on a €12,000 sports grant, living a hand-to-mouth existence? He knows the bronze medal in Denmark will have no bearing on his funding as the 50m breaststroke isn't an Olympic discipline. So be it. He's not screaming more injustice here. Just that life's realities begin to intrude when you reach a certain age.
"I've never been afraid of hard work," he says. "I've been pretty much broke all my life so I suppose another two years won't make a lot of difference. But I feel I'm getting to that stage of my life now where never having any money is becoming a pain in the arse. Of course, I'd love to go again and I'm leaning towards it. But it's not a decision to be taken lightly."
Regardless, he'll be ready to go again in January, working out with his coach, Paul Donovan, what it will take to find the two seconds or thereabouts he'll need to nail the 100m 'A' standard. "It's not insurmountable. I'll be 30 come Rio, but I've always been a late developer so age isn't an issue. If I was starting to feel myself decline, I'd be a little bit apprehensive. But this year has been my best ever by far. I'm as strong as I've ever been."
How could he stop now? He talks about his younger brother Dave -- Dáithí to his St Vincent's team-mates -- gunning for an All-Ireland club title in March and for a Dublin call-up beyond that and how, he figures, that will merely sharpen his own competitive teeth. The week he left for Denmark, Dave had won his Leinster medal and the arguments have been raging since as to which holds the greater lustre. "He's claiming a bit like the Americans if they win the All-Ireland, they'll be world champions," Barry laughs. "No way I'm letting him away with that."
In his younger brother's drive and ambition, though, he senses a reflection of his former self, the relentless work ethic, the near-professional approach it takes now to even think of breaking into the Dublin panel. Not quite tantamount to taking on the world's fastest swimmers, perhaps, not a million miles off either. "He's a big lad and if he keeps developing and working hard, hopefully he'll step up. I try to help anyway I can. If he has a game or a workout, I'm always there for a chat. Anything that helps."
For all the road he has travelled, and the road still yet to come, what better brother could you wish for to dispense advice?