August 11, 2015
Every once in a while, we are reminded that truth is stranger than fiction. Six weeks ago, Nick Symmonds – reigning world championship 800m silver medalist – shook off a nearly two-year slump to charge down the homestretch at Hayward Field to cross the finish line – his “guns” flashing – to claim yet another national championship and grab a spot on the U.S.A. world championship team headed for Beijing.
But recently, a subsequent dispute between USATF and the 800m national champion arose when Symmonds – a former Nike athlete now representing Brooks – was unwilling to sign the standard Statement of Conditions required of all United States world championship track and field athletes and which would have precluded Symmonds from wearing Brooks apparel at any time during Team USA’s excursion to China.
While it remains unclear whether or not subsequent litigation may ensue, one thing is clear. The United States’ 6-time national outdoor 800m champion is off the team and will not compete in Beijing.
Symmonds wins 800 meters, photo by PhotoRun.net
Stepping up in his place will be Clayton Murphy, a rising junior and middle distance star at the University of Akron. Virtually unknown when the year began, Murphy has had a dream year like no other. Improving his 800 meter PR by 9 seconds over the last 19 months, the 20-year old Ohio native captured third place in the both the indoor and outdoor 800m NCAA championships. Competing earlier this summer in the outdoor nationals with modest hopes of advancing to the second round, the Drake Relays 800m champion – surprising himself and many others – made the final and finished a hard-charging 4th – just missing 3rd and a trip to China by .24 seconds. Racing through the USATF rounds, Murphy strung together 3 consecutive personal bests, breaking the University of Akron school record twice along the way. With his 4th place finish qualifying him to represent the USA in the Pan-American Games, the 6-time Mid-American Conference champion was off to Toronto where his even-split racing tactics and withering finishing kick propelled him to the a 1:47.19 victory and a gold medal in his first international competition. Several weeks later, Murphy – who was unsuccessful last summer in his attempt to make the World Juniors team – donned the USA singlet again as he headed Costa Rica to participate in the North American Central American Caribbean global championships. Employing a change in racing styles – leading the final field through 400m in 50.8 – Murphy won silver even though he just couldn’t hold off teammate Ryan Martin who claimed the title.
“It’s like a dream come true. Could you have even dreamed it?”, asks Dennis Mitchell, Head Track & Field Coach at the University of Akron, as he reflects upon the meteoric rise of his middle distance protÃ©gÃ©. “All of sudden, you find yourself at the USATF championships moving up to 4th – nearly 3rd – in the 800m final. Then you find yourself at the Pan American Games – and you get the gold medal. And then you go out to Costa Rica and win silver. And now you get to wear the uniform for the 3rd time. What a great honor and what a great opportunity. He’s a great athlete and he has big goals. It’s been great ride for him.” Noting that Murphy has time to rest and sharpen before his first round competition, Mitchell adds, “He can rest. He can get ready there in China. I don’t think anyone is going to be building their race around Clayton. So he can build his race around them. He’s a kicker and he can be in any race. And we’ll see what happens there.”
The Zip 800m star first learned of this unexpected turn of events – and its potential impact upon him – last Thursday afternoon while hanging poolside in Costa Rica with a few of his USA teammates. “I was with Ryan Martin, Andy Wheating, and Ashley Higginson. Ryan hands me his phone, it displays ‘Nick Symmonds In Dispute With USATF.’ I didn’t really gather what that could mean. Ryan handed me his phone again and said, ‘This is really big. He’s not signing the Statement of Conditions and the USATF might kick him off.’ Ashley Higginson then asked, ‘Who was 4th?’ And I answered, ‘Me!’ And she said, ‘You’re going to go to Worlds. Watch it!’ From there, it just kept growing.” Symmonds and Murphy communicated. “When he refused to sign, a spot opened up. I talked with him a little bit through Twitter. He kind of gave me a heads up on what was going on. All I knew was I’d know Sunday night or Monday morning when the roster was released.” Murphy was subsequently contacted by USATF Sunday night to secure his commitment to compete on the USA team in Beijing.
“I feel pretty good,” announced Murphy who should have his expedited visa in two days and will fly to China on Monday. “I’m disappointed Nick can’t go. But I’ve kinda moved on from that. The fact is I’ve accepted the position. My focus is on trying to run well, to stay healthy, and to keep the training going for an extra week so I am ready to run well when I show up in China.” Has his unbelievably extended season – racing continuously since last fall’s cross country season – drained him? “I feel good. As I told Coach, I went out [in the NCAC final] in 50.8 and led the race and I had never gone out faster than 51 seconds. If I hadn’t lost a little focus on the second lap, I know physically I’m in shape and I thought I could have run 1:45, run easily at my PR. I’m in shape and ready to go. That [the NACAC final] was a good wake up call. It’s just that mental focus has to show up when I’m ready to run in 2 weeks.” Murphy – who has split a 45 second relay leg in 4x400m competition – plans to take it one miracle at a time. “I want to compete. To make the semi-finals, to run well, and to represent – that’s my first big goal.”
Clayton Murphy has an 800m personal best of 1:45.59 – well off the leading marks of the world’s top 2015 performers like Ayanleh Soulieman [1:42.97], Nigel Amos [1:42.66], and Amel Tuka [1:42.51]. But if the racing in Beijing becomes tactical, as it often does in the global championship rounds, world championship 800 meter competitors may learn – as others have before them – that Murphy possesses a powerful finishing kick that just may sting them. To be sure, middle distance aficionados handicapping the world championship 800m field will likely expect little from Akron’s surprise entrant. But then again, few liked Murphy’s chances before the NCAA meet, before the USATF Championships, before the Pan-America Games, the NACAC Championships…
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