Tom Archdeacon: Darke County's Clayton Murphy an Olympian now and forever

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Caption
Darke County native Clayton Murphy talks about representing the U.S. in the Olympics and how life in 4-H and on the farm helped lead him to this moment.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

He had had an answer for the seven guys who were running ahead of him as he entered the bell lap of the 800-meter finals at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 4th.

Most dramatically, he was able to answer front runner Boris Berian, the world indoor champ, who was several strides ahead as they came charging down the final stretch in front of a large, wildly-cheering crowd at the University of Oregon’s fabled Hayward Field.

But Clayton Murphy could only shrug when asked about what had happened next at that life-changing race almost two weeks ago.

“I can’t think of the last time I sat down on the track like that,” he said back at the University of Akron campus a couple of mornings ago. Then came a smile: “I was thinking ‘Wow, I just did it.’ And I had to sit down.”

That’s understandable considering the weight of the moment.

The Darke County farm boy, Tri-Village High School graduate and University of Akron All-American had wowed everyone with his stunning finish in the 800 finals. Using his trademark, late-race surge, he had come from the back of the pack and burst past Berian in the final few feet to win the 800 and punch his ticket to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next month.

As he crossed the finish line, Clayton stretched his arms out wide and after a couple more strides — reminiscent of the conquering Michael Jordan — he stuck out his tongue to further accessorize the celebration.

But then — as his mind caught up to his legs and he began to process everything — he dropped to a crouch, before sitting and finally lying back on the track.

Up in the stands, his mom, Melinda — who lives with her youngest son Wesley on the family’s 37-acre farm southwest of New Madison — was in tears.

“I cry every time he wins a big one,” she admitted. “It’s pretty awesome to see your kid’s dreams come true. He was part of an elite group now. He’d be an Olympian for the rest of his life.”

When the post-race interview was shown on the track’s big screen video board, Melinda — who had been sitting by herself — said she couldn’t contain herself and cried out to everyone:

“That’s my kid!”

From their various other posts in the crowd, Clayton’s dad, Mark, his grandma Wilma, his girlfriend Tara Snipes and her family and his coach, Akron distance mentor Lee LaBadie, all embraced the moment.

Back in New Madison the celebration became an instant communal thing, Melinda said:

“We have a community Fourth of July celebration and there’s a parade, cornhole and volleyball tournaments and at the end, there’s a spectacular fireworks show.

“Clayton’s race went off at 8:51 that night, so they opened the commons area at the school and played the race on a big screen TV. They told me there were more than a hundred people in there cheering.”

Before long the euphoria hit Piqua, too, where Clayton’s dad lives. Neighbor kids filled the front yard of his home with handmade signs, some decorated with the Olympic rings, that proclaimed things like:

“Go Clayton #Rio Bound”

“Going for Gold!”

“Murphy Team USA.”

RELATED: Murphy leads U.S. middle-distance charge

Over in Greenville, just behind Clayton’s favorite place to eat, the Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop, a large sign was affixed to the pair of old grainery silos that stand beyond the parking lot.

The message: “Good Luck Clayton Murphy … Rio 2016”

Clayton said he heard that in New Madison they are making up t-shirts trumpeting his Olympic bid.

And in front of Schelechty’s bar — next to the lighted Keno sign — a message board proclaims:

“Congrats Clayton Murphy Go For Gold.”

Two weekends from now Greenville hosts its gala Annie Oakley Days, but this summer Little Miss Sure Shot may be relegated to a warm-up act for the newest Darke County darling.

“Naah,” Clayton said, shaking his head and smiling. “I’ll let other people deal with who’s the most famous person in Darke County now.”

But the 21-year-old is hitting nothing but bull's-eyes lately. In his last three championship meets he has won the NCAA indoor 800 meters, the NCAA outdoor 1,500 meters and the Olympic Trials 800 meters.

A little over a year ago he still was focusing on making the 2020 Olympic team, but then one big victory followed another and he said he set his sights on 2016:

“As you start to check off your goals, why not set bigger ones?”

Student of history

When he started on his Victory Lap at the Trials, he first spotted Tara, a Covington High grad who now runs at Akron, too. He made his way to her and her family, and soon after found his mom.

“My mom made sure to get a selfie with me on that victory lap,” he laughed. “That’s her thing now. Whenever she does something with me, she takes a picture. I need to get her a selfie stick.”

When he got to his dad and grandmother, he gave them hugs, then was shepherded to the medal stand, where — as the present and likely future of American middle distance running — he was introduced to its glorious past.

Dave Wottle — another Ohioan who had a similar come-from-behind style — gave out the medals to the three Rio-bound half-milers.

A Canton native who starred at Bowling Green and was best known for his ever-present painter’s cap, Wottle was the last American to win the Olympic 800, taking gold at the 1972 Munich Games.

A few people, including LaBadie, have compared him with Wottle and Clayton said he has done some research on his own:

“I guess you could call me a track nerd. I have a folder on my computer which has almost every 800 race from the Olympic Games and world championships the past six years. I’ve also got some of the great races like Dave Wottle’s final at the Olympics. So I knew who he was, how he raced and all about that cap.”

He and Wottle spent 10 minutes talking and that moment resonated with LaBadie.

Americans have struggled in the Olympic 800 the past four decades, but before that two of the greatest U.S. winners were Wottle and Ohio State’s Mal Whitfield, who took Olympic gold in 1948 and 1952.

“Ohio has had a rich history of Olympic performers,” LaBadie said.

And he saw no reason why Clayton Murphy, still years from his prime, couldn’t one day add to that list.

Always competitive

Mark Murphy, an agronomist by trade, also is an old coin and currency auctioneer and it was through the latter that he met Dave Fross, the longtime baseball coach at Akron and a coin collector.

One day Mark said he mentioned Clayton, who was then an emerging runner at Tri-Village:

“Dave asked me, ‘How good is he?’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s getting some (recruiting) letters. Kentucky is interested. So is Iowa State, Georgia Tech and Memphis.’

“He said, ‘You ever consider Akron?’ I said, ‘No, never’ but he said they had a good head coach (Dennis Mitchell) and a good program and he gave me the phone number.

“The next day I called Dennis and maybe a day after we talked, I got a call from Coach LaBadie. He wanted to come watch the district meet.”

LaBadie, who had been a noted sub 4-minute miler himself in the early 1970s, had previously coached at Bowling Green and Ohio State, where he guided Buckeye steeplechasers Mark Croghan and Robert Gary, who ended up with five Olympic appearances between them.

While Clayton didn’t have the fastest 800 and 1,500 times in high school — and hadn’t always run against the stiffest competition — LaBadie liked what he saw.

The kid had the discipline and work ethic he learned doing chores on the farm and he hated to lose, a trait that had defined him when he showed pigs not only at the Darke County Fair, but at national competitions.

“I started showing pigs right after I learned to walk and if I didn’t win, I started to cry,” Clayton said with a smile. “I was extremely competitive, even then.”

He eventually found his niche in running, honed his skills training along the rural roads of Darke County and soon dominated the Cross County Conference. He was a three-time state qualifier in cross country and his senior year he used his late kick to top the defending state champ and win the small school 1,600-meter crown.

While some Big Ten schools ignored him and others told him to try to walk onto their program, Clayton committed to Akron because he felt comfortable with LaBadie.

“He’s been around the block a few times and knows what it takes to be a national champion and an Olympian,” Clayton said. “He saw some of those same attributes in me and made his case to Coach Mitchell. He said, ‘This kid is going to be good.’

“I’m sure a lot of those other coaches now wish they would have looked into it a little more back then, too.”

A chance to medal?

Having gotten back to Akron from the Trials three days earlier, Clayton rode his bike from the off-campus house he shares with five other guys to the track and field complex to talk to me.

After being inundated with an avalanche of texts, photos and phone calls from around the world after his 800 victory, this was the calm before the storm.

He’ll take part in a 1,000-meter challenge race — televised live in primetime on ESPN — against fellow Olympian, 1,500 meter champ Matt Centrowitz Jr. at Rice Stadium in Houston on July 23. He then heads to Rio on Aug. 2. His first Olympic heat is 10 days later.

As he relaxed now, he reflected on myriad subjects including what he thought was his first face-to-face meeting with Tara.

They were both high school juniors and had communicated by Facebook and then he finally talked to her at a meet.

Or so he thought.

“It was at the Troy Regional and I asked her how her race went, stuff like that,” he said. “I thought I was talking to her, but it was really her twin sister Heidi.

“Heidi played along, so I didn’t figure it out until later when I messaged Tara.”

They’ve now dated over 4 ½ years and while Tara — thanks to freshman year when she partially redshirted — still has most of two seasons of eligibility left, Clayton’s college career is over.

He bypassed his senior year of eligibility and turned pro when he signed a deal with Nike after the NCAA meet last month.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I had committed to the team and the university for four years … but I think I was ready for the next step. A running career can be short and my goal is not just this Olympics, but 2020 and 2024 and every championship in between.

“This enables me to get another year ahead and gives me more time to be selective with meets and practices. The university here did everything to make me fast and support me … and now Nike will help me take it a step farther.”

The U.S. last medaled in the 800 back in 1992 when Johnny Gray took bronze. This year, once again. the American contingent (Murphy, Berian and Charles Jock) will face long odds. Kenyans usually dominate the race and six are among the world’s top 10 in the event in 2016.”

At the 2012 Games, all eight of the runners in the final finished below 1:44.

Clayton ran a personal best 1:44.76 at the Trials.

Even so, his dad thinks he has a chance to medal in Rio.

“I don’t want that to come off as an arrogant statement, but I think if he makes the final he has a chance,” Mark Murphy said. “He probably can’t beat the Kenyans in a one-day race, but with three races in four days he has a chance. He’s got the endurance in him and he knows how to race.”

With that he made a comparison to another fabled Darke County sportsman, Hall of Fame harness driver Gene Riegle.

“Gene Riegle wasn’t the best sulky driver in the country, but he was smart,” Mark said. “He knew exactly what he had to do with his horses. And the 800 is a lot like a standardbred horse race. Clayton’s got it down to a science on his splits.”

While he said his son is quite familiar with the Darke County Fairgrounds, Mark admitted there’s a place on the other end of Greenville that Clayton is drawn to even more.

“Two days after he won the 800, we were walking on the University of Oregon campus and I asked him if there was one thing he missed from home,” Mark said. “He looked at me and said, ‘A Maid-Rite.’

“He didn’t miss Mom, didn’t miss Dad, nobody in Darke County. He just wished he had some Maid-Rites.”

Clayton said some folks in Darke County were disappointed to find out he wouldn’t be coming back home before the Games, but he said he had to keep his focus on Rio:

“I’m glad when I can bring the Olympic experience and add a personal touch for Darke County, the small towns, Tri-Village, the CCC, Greenville and the entire Dayton area. But it’s about more than all that now. I’ll have USA across my chest. I’m representing the country I grew up in and love. I want people to be proud.

"The Pan Am Games last summer were amazing. It was the first time I ran in a U.S. jersey and to win there and hear the national anthem playing — that's something you dream of as a kid.

“Hopefully, our anthem will be playing on the podium again. And no matter what, it’s a great honor.”

It was just such thoughts that forced him to sit on the track after his 800 win made him Rio bound. His life had just been changed. He would be an Olympian forever.