OMAHA, Neb. -- The U.S. men have a long tradition of medaling in the 100-meter backstroke at the Olympic Games. Most recently, Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman went 1-2 in London and won Olympic gold and silver medals, respectively.
In Rio, Ryan Murphy hopes to keep that tradition alive.
The 20-year-old six-time NCAA champion from the University of California, Berkeley passed David Plummer in the final 50 meters at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming and stunned Grevers to make his first U.S. Olympic team. Murphy’s time of 52.26 was the second fastest in the 100 back this year — behind the 52.12 that Plummer swam in the semifinals.
Plummer finished second in 52.28, with Grevers in third in 52.76.
Going into the race, Murphy, Plummer and Grevers — who is still gunning for his third Olympic team (and hopes to make it in the 100 freestyle) — knew it would be close. In the semis, the three men swam three of the four fastest times in the world this year. And before the race, Grevers had predicted that Aaron Peirsol’s world record (51.94) might fall.
That did not happen. But Murphy is hopeful that he can break the record in Rio.
“The job isn’t done yet,” he said. “I’m going to look at this race, find some improvements to make and hopefully I’ll be able to be a little faster in Rio and compete for that gold medal.”
Since the men’s 100-meter backstroke was added to the Olympic program in 1908 (and held in every summer Games except 1964), U.S. swimmers have won 14 (of 23) gold medals and 35 total medals. The U.S. has not lost the event in 20 years.
Grevers won in 2012, Peirsol in 2008 and 2004, Lenny Krayzelburg in 2000, and Jeff Rouse won gold in 1996.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in,” said Plummer, 30, who will likely be named to the U.S. Olympic team later this week. “You want to live up to the people who paved the way for where we’re at. It’s something we have a lot of confidence in, the U.S. team.”
If Plummer is named to the team, he will also be a first-time Olympian. He has competed in three world championships, winning a silver medal in the 100 back in 2011. Last year, he finished ninth in the 100 back at worlds.
“David’s been killing it all year, he’s going to be fast, and I think I can hold up my end too,” he said. “I think if we both go what we’re capable of, we have a good shot of going 1-2.”
Murphy made his world championship debut in 2015, finishing fifth in the 200 back and winning gold as part of the 4x100 medley team.
For Grevers, 31, it was a stunning turn of events. A six-time Olympic medalist, he won two backstroke medals at the 2015 world championships and had been training well coming into the Olympic Trials. Third place was not what he was expecting.
“When I was behind the block, I didn’t have any regrets,” he said. “I didn’t think about any training I missed or food habits or any indulgences I’ve had. I really put everything I could into the season, really for the last couple of years. Nothing to attribute that to except for the other guys just doing really well.”
Plummer called Grevers “one of the greatest competitors in the 100 backstroke of all time.”
For Murphy, youth won out over experience on a warm night in Omaha.
“Both those guys have either kids or kids on the way,” said Murphy. “I don’t even have a girlfriend. So they’re definitely a lot more mature than me. But you know, sometimes, youth wins out and that was the case tonight.”
“I know that’s not always going to be like that,” he added, “so I’ve got to keep working my butt off to try to make that a habit rather than just a coincidence.”
When asked what he thought when he looked at the scoreboard after the race and saw a ‘1’ by his name, Murphy smiled and said, “Hell, yah!”
“I’m super pumped right now,” he said. “To be able to call myself an Olympian, that’s just a dream come true.”
In other finals tonight, four other swimmers made their first Olympic team.
Coming out of nowhere, Townley Haas caught 2012 Olympian Conor Dwyer and three-time Olympian Ryan Lochte in the final leg of the men’s 200-meter freestyle and made his first U.S. Olympic team. His time of 1:45.66 was 0.01 faster than Dwyer.
The top four finishers in 200 free qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team for the 4x200 relay, so Dwyer, third-place finisher Jack Conger, and Lochte, who finished fourth, will go to Rio. Dwyer will likely be named to the team for the individual 200 later this week as well (and the 400 free, where he finished second on Sunday night).
In the women’s 100 backstroke, Olivia Smoliga beat two Olympic champions to qualify for her first U.S. Olympic team. The 21-year-old won a silver medal in the 100 backstroke at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Kathleen Baker was second in the 100 back.
Missy Franklin, the defending Olympic gold medalist in 100 back, finished seventh, ending her bid for Rio in that event. Natalie Coughlin, who won the 100 back at the 2004 and 2008 Games, finished eighth and now hopes to make the team in the 100 freestyle.
Continuing the trend of first-time Olympians, Lilly King closed the night with a win in the 100 breaststroke, winning in 1:05.20 — the fastest time in the world this year. The 19-year-old’s Olympic Trials victory comes just three months after she won both the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststrokes at 2016 NCAAs as a freshman at the University of Indiana. Her times in both NCAA races set American records at those distances. Katie Meili, last year’s Pan American Games champion in the event, was second in 1:06.07. Olympian Breeja Larson was fourth and two-time Olympic medalist Jessica Hardy finished sixth.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.