Father Knows Best.
A popular TV sitcom in the 1950s, it became an amazing reality show that played out Monday night on the Olympic Stadium track in Rio de Janeiro.
That’s where Clayton Murphy made good on what once seemed like wild speculation by his dad back in July. That’s when Mark Murphy sat across from me at a Bob Evans restaurant in Piqua and suddenly offered:
“I don’t know how to say this without it sounding like an arrogant statement, but I think Clayton is going to medal in Rio.
“He probably can’t beat the Kenyans in one race on just one day, but with three races over four days — he’s got endurance, he knows how to race — I think he will be in the finals. I can see it happening. I can see him medaling.”
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In Rio, his 21-year old son — a kid when it comes to middle-distance seasoning — would run the 800 meters, a race that was the personal playground of Kenya’s 27-year-old David Rudisha, who had won gold in the event at the 2012 London Olympics in world record time and holds six of the eight fastest times in history in the 800.
Four years ago, when Rudisha was running his record 1:40.91, Murphy was clocking a 1:56 in the 800 as a Tri-Village High School junior. As a senior he’d finished seventh in the 800 meters in the state’s Division III meet.
Granted, once he got under the care of University of Akron distance coach Lee LaBadie he made great strides: winning the 800 meters at the 2015 Pan American Games, the NCAA 800 indoor title earlier this year and the Olympic Trials 800 (1:44.76) in early July. But he still was considered a longshot to make the eight-man Olympic final in Rio.
He was ranked 19th in the world in May. And last Friday, in the opening round of the 800 in Rio, he was bumped around in his heat, finished fourth and 12th overall, managing to advance to the 16-man semifinals as a non-automatic qualifier.
Even with a personal best (1:44.30) in the semifinal that got him into the final, Murphy was in sixth place Monday night with less than 200 meters to go.
“I’m not saying that Dad knows best, but I do know a little bit about it,” Mark Murphy said Tuesday from Rio. “I know Clayton’s determination. And he was ready.”
After enduring a withering early pace by another Kenyan runner, Murphy worked his way out of a traffic jam that pinned him inside. And then came his trademark late-race surge down the stretch.
Some nine strides before the finish line he powered past the fading Frenchman Pierre-Ambroise Bosse and into third place, crossing the finish line in a bronze medal-winning 1:42.93 behind Algeria’s Taofik Makhloufi (1:42.1) and Rudisha, who won in 1:42.15.
For the second race in a row, Murphy had run a personal best.
“He shaved more than a second off from one race to the next and that’s unheard of,” said Melinda Murphy, Clayton’s mom. “You do that in a year. He shaved over a second in one night!”
Murphy recorded the third-fastest 800 time in U.S. history. His bronze was the first medal in the event since Johnny Gray took bronze 24 years earlier at the Barcelona Games.
“Olympic medalist, that’s a nice title to have next to your name, isn’t it?” Melinda said. “It’s an elite title. One you carry the rest of your life.”
‘Was meant to be’
Growing up on a 37-acre farm in Darke County where he raised pigs and was a member of the Future Farmers of America club at Tri-Village High in New Madison, Clayton “wasn’t given anything” when it came to track, Melinda said. “He worked hard at it.”
Mark recalled watching his young son run his four-, six- and 10-mile training loops along the narrow country roads while he followed in a golf cart to keep an eye on him:
“To have followed him on those country roads and now follow him to Rio and the Olympic stage is pretty surreal.
“He had to race Rudisha in all three races here. How’s that for pressure? A Darke County farm boy going up against the No 1 runner in the world. But it was the best thing for him.”
Diamonds are formed when carbon is exposed to extreme heat and pressure and that’s more or less what happened to Clayton in Rio.
“Everything that could have gone wrong in the first heat did and he still advanced,” Melinda said. “That’s when it seemed like it was meant to be.”
The semifinal heat, Mark said, was referred to as “the Heat of Death” on some running blogs. “Nobody figured Clayton would advance. Not the odds-makers anyways.”
That set the stage for a final neither Mark nor Melinda will forget.
“To hear the (starter’s) gun go off in the Olympic Stadium and then the fans from all over the world just start screaming, it was unbelievable,” Mark said.
Melinda was in the front row with Clayton’s girlfriend Tara Snipes, an Akron runner from Covington High: “I was so nervous at the start I was almost sick. I tried to put the thoughts out of my mind like Clayton does, but unfortunately they went to my stomach.
“It’s just you just don’t know what he’s thinking out there. What his strategy is. Is it working? But then, like he always does, he had that kick at the end. But truthfully I really can’t tell you a lot more about that. I fell apart. I was just crying.”
Mark sat in the second row, a little further away, and remembers the sight of his son caped in an American flag afterward:
“I’ve never seen so much excitement in Clayton’s eyes and face as when he made that victory lap.”
A unifying effect
Clayton didn’t leave the stadium until the wee hours of Tuesday morning and was on Copacabana Beach a few hours later to be interviewed on NBC’s Today show.
“I saw him for a few minutes and he was so tired,” said Mark, who headed to the airport and a day of flights back to Ohio soon after. “He was drained physically and mentally. He gave everything he had here.”
Tuesday night Clayton was awarded his medal at the stadium as his mom and girlfriend looked on.
“After the closing ceremony he’s going to Switzerland for a meet and then I believe Paris,” Melinda said. “He’ll come back home for just a little bit and then he has a big meet in New York.”
Melinda, who has a job back here buying grain from farmers for the Trupoint Coop, she laughed when she thought about the life she has been immersed in the past week:
“I literally have been a world away. I realized this morning I completely forgot there was an election going on back home.”
She did hear about the way folks back here, especially in New Madison and surrounding Darke County, had celebrated their new favorite son.
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A crowd had gathered at the school to watch Friday morning’s first heat and Monday night’s final. In between, the party moved to Schlechty’s bar in town for Saturday night’s semifinal.
“But it wasn’t just at those places either,” she said. “I’m told people’s living rooms were full. They had breakfast viewing parties when Clayton ran his first heat Friday morning. They gathered in living rooms the other two nights, too. That was part of the neatness of it.
“He’s the one out there running on the track, but he’s taking a lot of people with him.
“With everything that’s going on in the world, with everything going on in the United States, he brought people together in living rooms to cheer for the USA.
“It’s just neat that a single boy can do that … I mean … a man, he’s not a boy anymore.
“It’s neat that one single man can bring so many people together for a joyous event. When you think of it in that way, it’s a pretty amazing feat.”
Mom knows best, too.