Up until four years ago, Chris Murphy was a professional freelance musician, bouncing around Southern California with his trombone, stopping to play any paid gig he could land.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music performance from California State University, he worked as a Disneyland musician for five years. He appeared as a background musician in the 2013 movie “Gangster Squad.” He traveled to Cheju Island in South Korea to play with an orchestra in a local festival. And he played in countless musicals, weddings, church groups, jazz bands and salsa bands.
But he slowly started losing interest in his tunes, partially because he didn’t have enough confidence that he could succeed or become famous with his disability.
Murphy had sustained a brachial plexus injury at birth that resulted in permanent nerve damage. The doctor was forced to pull him out by his head, which damaged the nerves from his neck through to his arm.
Because his mother was very protective of him growing up, Murphy was constantly conducting his own research on brachial plexus injuries, and one day he came across an article about a para-cyclist with a similar impairment.
Cycling remained more of a hobby until a few years ago.
“Pursuing music as a career had really taken a toll on my enjoyment of it,” Murphy said. “I was transitioning out of that when cycling came along.”
Murphy, who first hopped on a bike as a means of commuting to a part-time student job to avoid LA traffic, began to enter national road cycling competitions. Then, after adding track events to his repertoire, he was invited to a talent identification camp before making the U.S. Paralympics Cycling National Team in 2014.
“It turned out I was pretty good at track cycling, and I ended up winning two national championships that year,” Murphy relayed.
Now a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the 31-year-old — whose Twitter handle is, fittingly, @MusicalBikes — is gearing up to compete in the UCI Para-Cycling Track World Championships, which begin on Thursday in Montichiari, Italy.
Tied for sixth in the world rankings in the C5 class this season, Murphy will compete in three events in Italy: 1-kilometer time trial, 4-kilometer pursuit and team sprint.
Murphy’s best individual event is the time trial, a race he won at last month’s U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open and finished fourth in at both the 2015 world championships and 2015 Parapan American Games.
He’s the anchorman for the American mixed team sprint contingent, which also includes Paralympic champions Joe Berenyi and Jennifer Schuble. The trio will try to kick it up a notch after placing fourth at the last two world championships, missing the podium both times by a combined four-tenths of a second.
Murphy said he won’t put as much pressure on himself in the individual pursuit, an event he was fourth and 10th in at last year’s Parapans and world championships, respectively. However, he hopes to at least make the medal round.
Team USA’s Paralympic cycling squad was ranked first overall in the UCI standings last year after a 12-medal haul at the world championships, and it received a further lift last November, when former professional cyclist Michael Creed, a holder of 25 road and track titles, took over the team’s coaching reigns.
Murphy has flourished under Creed’s tutelage the last few months, having just ridden his fastest flying lap ever (14.3 seconds) in his team sprint training in Colorado Springs, where he practices alongside six-time Paralympic medalist Allison Jones, retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Scott Martin and retired U.S. Army Sgt. Justin Widhalm.
“It kinds of makes you not beat yourself up as much,” Murphy said of training with Creed and the aforementioned trio in a team-first environment.
Later this year, from June 30-June 2, Murphy and his teammates will compete at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, where they hope to book their tickets to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
But for now, Murphy, who seldom picks up his trombone anymore, has both eyes on a world championship medal and is not looking to abandon a chance at fame this time around.
“I’m not really one to toot my own horn too much,” Murphy said, no pun intended, “but at this point, I feel seasoned enough that I know who to watch out for and who can have a good ride. I’m just going after this trying to do my best and really see what I’m made of and capable of.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.