RIO DE JANEIRO — Aaron Peirsol, Matt Grevers, Lenny Krayzelburg, John Naber. These are the legendary backstrokers of America.
To this list, add Ryan Murphy and David Plummer.
Murphy and Plummer went 1-3 in the 100-meter backstroke in Rio, keeping a 20-year tradition alive. American men have won the event in six straight Olympic Games; and starting in 1908, U.S. men have stood on the podium in the 100 back in every Olympic Games but three (excluding 1964 when the event was not held).
Murphy and Plummer were very much aware of this tradition and did not want to be the ones to break it. Before the race, many of the legends reached out and told Murphy that they believed in him, that he could do it.
“Those guys who have won in the past, those are my idols, I grew up watching them,” said Murphy. “To hear their words of encouragement coming into this meet, that meant a great deal to me. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
Murphy took over the lead at the 50 and held it to the end, winning the third Olympic gold medal for the U.S. swimming team in Rio. His time of 51.97 was just shy of the world record set by Peirsol in 2009 (51.94). But it eclipsed Grevers’ Olympic record (52:16) set when Grevers won gold in 2012.
“The race itself was just phenomenal,” said Murphy. “I tried to take the energy from the crowd. I did a really good job of sticking to my race plan tonight. This is huge for my development as a swimmer. It couldn’t have happened on a better stage.”
It’s the first Olympic Games — and first Olympic medal — for the 21-year-old swimmer from the University of California, Berkeley who’s been called the future of American backstroke.
Growing up, Murphy broke 26 age group records, and he currently holds NCAA records in the 100 and 200 backstroke. In his three years at Cal-Berkeley, he is undefeated in the 100 and 200 backstroke at NCAAs.
Asked when he thought winning an Olympic gold medal was realistic, Murphy responded, “Tonight!”
In a triumph for older athletes — and parents — 30-year-old Plummer touched the wall right behind Xu Jiayu of China for the bronze medal. Plummer is the father of two young kids, his youngest born in May. He is also a first-time Olympian in Rio, and he is the third parent on the U.S. swim team to win a medal in Rio (Dana Vollmer and Michael Phelps are the other two swimmers with kids).
It’s been a long road for Plummer, who missed making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team by 0.12 seconds. He almost quit the sport. But he kept going, and at the 2013 world championships, won a silver medal in the 100 backstroke.
“It was really tough,” Plummer admitted. “Trying to look ahead to age 30 and tell yourself you’re still going to have it was really hard but absolutely worth it.”
“It’s been a long road, long hard road,” he added. “To be here and get two Americans on the podium, I’m really, really excited.”
From Minnesota, Plummer works as the Wayzata High School boys swim coach. Asked if an Olympic medal would give him some cred among his charges, Plummer quipped, “Getting high school kids to listen to anything isn’t super easy, but hopefully it gives me a little more credibility.”
Plummer was especially happy for Murphy.
“I think everybody’s known that about Murph for a couple years now,” he said. “He’s going to be one of the best of all time and already is. So just to be a little part of his journey is a really cool thing.”
Asked why he chose to specialize in backstroke, Murphy said backstroke chose him.
“I would get advice on technique from my coaches, and I would listen to them for butterfly, breaststroke and freestyle,” he said. “But I would never listen to them for backstroke just because what they were telling me didn’t feel right. I just have a natural feel for backstroke.”
In a testament to how strong men’s backstroke is in the U.S, both Murphy and Plummer had to beat Grevers at 2016 Olympic Trials to make it to Rio.
It was the 15th time in Olympic history that the U.S. has had two swimmers win medals in the 100 backstroke. Most recently, Grevers and Nick Thoman went 1-2 at the London Games in 2012; and Peirsol and Grevers were 1-2 at the 2008 Beijing Games.
In the other men’s final on Monday night, Conor Dwyer won a bronze medal in the 200-meter freestyle — the first Olympic medal in an individual event for the two-time Olympian.
Although the 27-year-old freestyler had earned seven Olympic and world championship medals (long course) coming to Rio, Dwyer won six of them as part of relay teams. His only medal from an individual race is silver from the 200 free at the 2013 world championships. Winning an Olympic medal in an individual competition had been a goal for a long time.
He just missed achieving this goal in the men’s 400-meter freestyle on Saturday night, finishing fourth, one place better than he finished the 400 in London.
“It was a tough break, and mentally I was a little broken,” Dwyer admitted.
But he was not going to be denied in the 200 free.
Dwyer held second throughout the race and faded to third in the final 50, finishing in 1:45.23, just 0.03 from a silver medal.
When he looked at the scoreboard after the race, he was relieved.
“I wanted to get on that podium really bad,” he said. “It’s a really good feeling to get top three on the biggest stage in our sport.”
Sun Yang from China won the 200 free in 1:44:65, with Chad le Clos from South Africa coming in second. Yang earned silver medals in the 200 free in both the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2015 world championships.
Townley Haas, who won the 200 free at Olympic Trials, finished fifth.
With a gold medal from the men’s 4x200 freestyle at the 2012 London Games, Dwyer now owns two Olympic medals. He will swim for a third in the men’s 4x200 free tomorrow.
“I think our 800 free relay is going to be something special,” Dwyer predicted.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.