Twenty-one-year-old swimming star Ryan Murphy was born in the Chicago area, grew up in Florida, matriculated in California and competed in Rio de Janeiro this summer — winning three gold medals.
Along with his athletic prowess, one constant of Murphy’s life has been his family’s unswerving commitment to their Catholic faith. He was born on the South Side of Chicago, into a family strongly devoted to Catholic education.
Growing up in St. Gerald and St. Germaine parishes in Oak Lawn, Ill., Murphy’s parents received their respective educations at various Catholic institutions. His mother, Katy, attended St. Gerald and St. Germaine Catholic Schools and then Mother McAuley High School in Chicago. His father, Pat, also attended St. Gerald Catholic School and then St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Ill. Pat also attended St. Xavier College (now University) in Chicago.
In 1996, the family moved to Jacksonville, Fla., and immediately set about searching for an appropriate Catholic grade school for their children.
“Catholic education was always important to me and my family,” Murphy explained to the Register. “My older sister, older brother and I all attended Palmer Catholic Academy for grade school. I remember my sister really researching high schools in Jacksonville to find the right fit. At the time, we were all involved in swimming, so Shannon chose Episcopal High School, due to its excellent academic reputation as well as having a 50-meter pool and a year-round swim program.
“I would have gone to Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, but they didn’t have a year-round swimming program. And St. Augustine didn’t have a swimming pool, so I really couldn’t go there either. It was a difficult choice my family and I had to make, but we ultimately chose The Bolles School, a secular school, because it had a very reputable academic program and a great swim team.”
He graduated from The Bolles School in 2013. He currently studies at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I hope to combine my interests in entrepreneurship and professional sports when I graduate,” the athlete explained.
Swimming subsequently for UC Berkeley, Murphy is now a six-time NCAA individual national champion in the 100-yard and 200-yard backstrokes. In 2015, Murphy broke the American record previously held by Ryan Lochte in the 200-yard backstroke. In 2016, Murphy reset his 200-yard backstroke American record and demolished the 100-yard backstroke American record, with a time of 43.49 seconds.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Murphy won gold in two individual events ― the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. He also broke the 100-meter backstroke world record, with his 51.85-second lead-off split for the U.S. gold medal-winning 4x100-meter medley relay, alongside teammates Michael Phelps, Cody Miller and Nathan Adrian.
Faith in Action
Ryan Murphy is a quiet, focused and faith-filled athlete ― a bit shy and reserved, with a refreshing reticence about his accomplishments. He has a great devotion to St. Christopher, the patron saint of swimmers.
He has drawn inspiration from his paternal uncle Frank, who had always supported him, but who died of esophageal cancer in May 2014, at the age of 51.
“He always promoted my swimming competitively, and I still speak to him in my prayers. He was very important to me.”
Murphy and his family attend Mass weekly at their parish, Our Lady Star of Sea, whenever he returns to Jacksonville. He served as an altar boy there for three years.
A particularly poignant moment occurred at the Olympics after Murphy won his gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke. All the cameras were on him when he exited the pool and genuflected in prayer.
“My mother always reminds me to ‘thank before you petition’ during my prayers, and I try to keep to that.”
In describing his faith, Murphy spoke succinctly and to the point.
“I’m a firm believer in God. My faith is important to me. There are, however, times when I rely on him more than others. Overall, I am private in my spirituality.”
“Other than Mass, I pray before bed every night,” he added. “I also believe it’s important to balance my prayer life by actively living my faith. I hope to do this by being a good son, brother, teammate and friend.”
Murphy’s prayer life and athleticism are intimately connected, and he doesn’t take either for granted.
“I believe God has given me a great talent, for which I’m eternally grateful. My faith gives me comfort despite the outcome of a race. I ultimately believe ― I know ― God has a larger plan for me.”
Murphy offered some salient observations when asked about the public scrutiny he faces outside as well as inside the pool, in an age of social media and round-the-clock Internet journalism.
“To quote Spiderman, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” he said. “Being in a position of a role model means my life will always be scrutinized. I understand the importance of this in my life. With good decisions comes respect from others, and with bad decisions comes judgment. I need to be especially careful to think carefully about my decisions, my surroundings and my actions.”
Added Murphy, “God has given all of us free will, and I hope always to live my life based on his will. Prayer and aligning oneself with God’s will is the best way to navigate problems one finds in life.”
Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York.