INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Grevers was once the king of backstroke. Until Ryan Murphy dethroned him last summer, winning two Olympic gold medals in Rio.
But 32-year-old Grevers yanked back the crown at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships, part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
From the start, Grevers stretched his 6-foot-8 frame down the pool, staying ahead of Murphy the entire race. He won his sixth national title in 52.71 in the 100-meter backstroke.
“It felt really good to win!” Grevers said almost gleefully after the race. “It felt great to touch the wall and see a ‘1’ next to my name again! It doesn’t happen very often while racing Ryan Murphy, so that was a lot of prayers answered for me.”
Murphy, 22, who turned pro this spring, held on for second in 53.02.
Long live the king(s).
It was redemption for Grevers, a six-time Olympic medalist and former world champion who missed qualifying for his third Olympic Games last year — and thus lost the opportunity to defend his 100 back Olympic gold medal.
The crowd felt the emotion too. As Grevers held the lead in the final 50 meters at 2017 nationals, everyone in the stands was on their feet.
“I’m like the Rudy of swimming right now,” said Grevers, referring to the movie of a football player who dreams of playing at Notre Dame. “I’m not quite the underdog, but I think people saw some of the pain that I experienced in 2016. People don’t like to see that sort of pain on someone, so they’re just trying to root for some happiness for the big guy!”
Grevers watched the 2016 Olympic backstroke final on his phone while taxiing in an airplane for takeoff.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Seeing [David] Plummer get third was as amazing to me as Ryan winning [in Rio], the USA dominating backstroke like we do. It was also super sad not to be there and share the moment with them but also a lot of pride in our backstroke ability.”
Grevers did not retire though. He kept training and competing in the Arena Pro Swim Series races throughout the winter and spring. Did he have doubts he would make it back onto another international team?
“Yes, I would like to say I didn’t doubt it but yeah, I think once your ego takes the hit like it did at [Olympic trials], it’s hard to believe in yourself again,” he confessed.
Then in November, his wife Annie had a baby daughter, Skylar. And suddenly, swimming came into perspective.
“Having a human, to help create one and care for one and see her grow, it’s so much different [than swimming],” Grevers said, with a slight quake in his voice. “It just puts things in perspective and makes those lows go away. Maybe not completely, I think there’ll be a scar from 2016 trials forever in me. But it’s healing now, and this race helps heal it more.”
Grevers tore through two Arena Pro Swim Series (PSS) races, twice beating 2016 Olympian Jacob Pebley in the 100 back.
As summer rolled around, Murphy — who turned pro after sweeping both backstroke titles at NCAAs in March — took over. He beat Grevers in the Santa Clara PSS.
Coming to nationals, it looked like the 100 back would be a Murphy-Grevers showdown, a race for the 100 backstroke title between two men a decade apart in age. For Grevers, more was on the line than just another national title and world championships berth. His swimming career was at stake.
“If I didn’t make the team, I really had no choice but to at least add something else to my life, coaching or a more permanent job instead of just being able to swim,” he said. “So this was huge. I would have been done. Maybe not. I would have maybe found a way not to be, but making the team now solidifies that.”
The veteran swimmer thrived on the added pressure. And from the start of the race, Grevers took control from Murphy, the current world-record holder.
“I’ve always looked up to Matt,” said Murphy. “He was the standard for me when I was growing up, so it’s great to race against that guy. I’m really happy he’s going to be on the worlds team with me.”
Grevers will head to the national team training camp and world championships without his wife and daughter — but will meet up with them in Holland after for a family reunion.
Meanwhile, he will be back with his swimming family — and have an opportunity to win more world championships medals. He currently has seven, including gold in the 100 back from 2013.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Grevers said. “[Ryan’s] just a great guy. The whole team is an incredible group of people who I really enjoy being around. That’s partly why I wanted to make it so bad, so I can be part of Team USA, the greatest team in the history of the world.”
As for 2020, will he try to make another Olympic team?
“I would love it, I would love it to be possible,” he said. “As long as I keep making the teams. Training is going great. My body is awesome, no injury problems whatsoever. Healthy as can be, and I think my mindset is as healthy as can be. I’m hoping to go a lot faster in Budapest and see what happens. I would love to go to 2020.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.