DARKE COUNTY — It’s 2,000 miles from Ohio to Eugene, Oregon, where United States Track & Field Team held its Olympic trials.
More than 5,000 miles separates the Buckeye State from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the site of the 2016 XXXI Summer Olympic Games held Aug. 5-21.
But for one young runner, the distance between home and Olympic glory is only 800 meters.
Clayton Murphy, a 2013 Tri-Village High School graduate and University of Akron standout, finished first in the 800-meter finals July 4. He will be joined by Team USA runners Boris Berian and Charles Jock during South America’s first time hosting an Olympic Summer Games.
During the finals in Oregon, the 21-year-old Murphy crossed the finish line with a personal-best time of 1:44.76, beating International Association of Athletics Federation World Indoor Champion Boris Berian by nearly two-tenths of a second (1:44.92). Murphy remains unbeaten in 2016.
Murphy was eighth out of nine runners at the halfway point in the 800 qualifier, but in the home stretch, he blew past the competition, impressing spectators and broadcasters alike.
Murphy turned professional last month and signed with Nike after winning the NCAA national championship in the 1,500 meters. He focused on the 800 meters in the trials because he previously had achieved the Olympic qualifying standard in that event.
With each event in his career, Murphy is building momentum, which he hopes leads to an Olympic gold medal.
He finished fourth overall in the 800 meters at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships last summer, then went on to win gold at the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, won silver at the North America Central America Caribbean Association in San Jose, Costa Rica, and then represented America at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Beijing, China.
Murphy said he is still trying to wrap himself around the notion of representing his nation, and his home, in the world’s biggest sporting event.
“Having a full day to soak it in, it’s becoming more of a reality I think,” he said. “The initial first 24 hours after [was] an indescribable feeling. Not really knowing what to do, enjoying the process and everything that came with it.”
In describing his situation, the word “cool” was frequently invoked, and rightfully so.
“It’s cool,” Murphy said. “There’s overwhelming support from home, from Akron to Darke County. It’s something that I never dreamed of. It’s cool to bring that Olympic experience to a small town, that way people can kind of experience that with me as far as knowing someone or now when you watch the Olympics, you know someone who’s there. It’s cool to bring that excitement and the experience to such a small area.”
In the 24 hours following his 800-meter triumph, Murphy said he was bombarded with congratulations from friends and family.
“It started to slow down this morning, but it’s pretty much been a constant phone going off with congratulations texts,” he explained. “It’s been exciting to have that kind of support around me.”
Murphy said he is staying in Eugene to “enjoy the experience” before heading back to Akron on Tuesday to continue his training efforts.
In making Team USA, the 21-year-old has not only made a name for himself locally, as the first Darke County native to qualify for the Olympics, he is also the first University of Akron Zip to represent the United States in the Olympic games.
As such, Murphy’s performance in Eugene left a big impression on his Akron coaches.
“Wow! What a great thing for Clayton,” commented Akron head track and field coach Dennis Mitchell. “What a great honor for Akron. Clayton ran a very smart, well thought out race. He did everything according to plan. However, you can’t just plan your way to victory, you have to have speed and mostly a big heart and his heart is enormous.”
“Big, huge props to coach [Lee] LaBadie, he is the mastermind. He may be the best middle-distance coach in the country,” Mitchell added.
Akron head cross country and distance coach Lee LaBadie, who will accompany Murphy to Rio, said, “What an athlete! I’m so proud of what Clayton has been able to accomplish.”
In addition to LaBadie, Murphy will be joined in Rio by his parents, Mark and Melinda, and his girlfriend, Tara Snipes, a Covington High School graduate and herself an Akron track and field runner.
Mark Murphy described himself as “nervous” during Clayton’s first qualifying race on the previous Friday.
“Clayton had raced in many big races,” he said. “He just finished the NCAA in the 1,500 meters and had just signed a professional contract with Nike. That was a lot to happen in two weeks for Clayton. I was nervous, one of the first times I’d been nervous.”
“I should have never worried about it, because Clayton never fails” he admitted. “After Friday night’s race was over, then it becomes more of what I’m used to watching Clayton race.”
Mark said his son has always been competitive, whether participating in soccer, track, basketball or even showing pigs for his 4-H club.
“His sophomore year was when he decided running would be his No. 1 priority, and that’s what he focused on,” he said.
Family friend and coach Bill Funderburg, of Greenville, concurred regarding Clayton’s competitiveness and skills, once telling the elder Murphy he thought Clayton, then in his eighth grade year, had the “best running form of any kid he’d seen.”
“Clayton had a real easy stride and a desire,” he said.
During Murphy’s junior and senior years in high school, Funderburg coached him in the Darke County Hawks, a Christian homeschool basketball team. Murphy played defensive point guard for the team.
As one of his requirements for playing, Funderburg required his varsity players to show up five minutes early to cheer on the junior varsity team in its game.
“Clayton would always come with his Tri-Village jacket, and a sweatshirt underneath with a hoodie, and a towel wrapped around, and the real neat thing was, I’d ask him, ‘How many miles did you run before you came to the game?’ He’d say ‘Somewhere around 8 to 12.’”
“He’d play the whole game unless he got in foul trouble,” he added.
Funderburg says Murphy set an example for the other players but never showed arrogance.
“Clayton never held any of his superiority in assets over the other boys — he was just one of the guys. He was very, very competitive. Sometimes I had to tune him down when he came back into the huddle when the game was close to let him know that I was still the coach,” he said, laughing.
Murphy’s former high school cross country coach, Scott Warren, who coached him during his senior year at Tri-Village, describes him as a “perfectionist.”
“He is absolutely the most consistent, persistent kid I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “And mature. For just turning 21, he’s very mature.”
Warren related a moment he shared with the runner after Murphy began his college career.
“The one thing he told me for the first time when we had breakfast after he’d went off to school, he said ‘Coach, you know what? It ain’t about me anymore. I’ve got a whole team that does the same thing I’ve been doing a long time, you know?’” Warren said. “He concerns himself with everyone else. He expects to do what he can do, but his concern is with the other teammates.”
Warren was one of approximately 100 people who crammed into Tri-Village High School on Independence Day to watch Murphy blaze past his competitors to claim a stake to compete in the Rio Olympics.
“He’s a great kid, humble, well-mannered, who happens to be a pretty decent runner,” Warren said, tongue-in-cheek.
Though thousands of miles from home, Clayton Murphy won’t be alone. The people in one rural county in southeastern Ohio, as well as sports fans across America, will be following his every stride.
The quarterfinals of the 800 meters at the XXXI Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will be run at 9:10 a.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 12. The semifinals will be held at 9:05 p.m. ET on Aug. 13. The Olympic final in the 800 meters will take place at 9:25 p.m. ET. on Aug. 15.