On Campus Interview Series: Diving for Olympic Gold

The average Australian is usually in possession of some sort of athletic prowess, or at least a strong love of sports. However, this week’s featured athlete takes Australian sporting prowess to another level. A level somewhere above the stratosphere. Softly spoken, humble and erudite, you wouldn’t immediately pick Michael Murphy (NB) as an international diving superstar. But he is. His two Olympic appearances garnered him two top-six finishes. He also won Commonwealth Games and World Junior Championship Gold Medals. And a mind-blowing 42 national titles! Michael hails from Brisbane, loves to play guitar, watch sports, and hang out with family and friends. It was a pleasure to catch up with him in The Grille and hear some tales of his Olympic Diving career.

Fact File: Michael ‘Pog’ Murphy
Height: 5 feet 10 inches
Weight: 176 pounds
Eyes: Brown
Hair: Brown
Marital Status: Married
Favorite Food: Indian
Favorite Drink: Pepsi Max (sugar free variant of Pepsi sold in Australia)
Favorite Film: Fight Club
Favorite Band: Powderfinger [Editor’s note – possibly the best Oz rock around]Nickname: Pog
How Acquired Nickname: Someone called me a fat pog when I was much younger. Only problem is that I don’t know what a pog is, and I wasn’t fat!

Harbus: How did you first get into diving?

Michael Murphy: When I was nine, I was sent on a school holiday activity camp, where you basically do stuff during working hours. One activity was trampolining and I happened to be naturally acrobatic. I started competing in trampolining and went to the world junior championships in Japan. Trampolining was fairly short-lived though. I did it for about two years and then met a diving coach – kind of a talent scout. He told me that diving was an Olympic sport (trampolining wasn’t at the time), and suggested I try it out. It seems funny to say that at that age I was thinking about the Olympics, but I was, so I made the switch to diving.

Harbus: And how did you progress from this start to the Olympics?

MM: Six weeks after this, I competed in my first national championships, and made the under-12 national team. So, at age 11, I was on my way to Texas for the world junior championships. I think I came 5th or something. Things progressed rapidly from there. I left home at 12 to live and train with my coach. At 14, I tried out for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and came 4th, but only three divers went to the games. I didn’t expect the tryouts to go that well, so I suppose this was the first indication of serious potential.

Editor’s Note: At this point, Michael’s modesty kicked in, and the Harbus had to coax Michael’s impressive record from him. And let the record show:

Olympics: 1992 Barcelona (4th); 1996 Atlanta (6th)

Commonwealth Games: 1990 Auckland (2x 4ths, 5th); 1994 Victoria (2x GOLD, 1x SILVER)

World Championships: Loads of 4th-6th placings

Junior World Championships: 4x GOLD, 1x SILVER, 1x BRONZE

Australian Championships: 42 x GOLD

Editor’s note – yes, forty-two national titles across different diving disciplines

Harbus: So what do you consider the highlight out of this career?

MM: It would be the 4th place in the 3m Springboard at the Olympics in Barcelona. It was the best result for an Australian since 1924, and it had some significance in pushing Australian diving forward. It changed the psychology of our athletes, knowing that we could compete with the best in the world. So it was satisfying individually, but also for its effect on the team. And the Olympics were pretty good fun for an 18-year old!

Harbus: Are there any disappointments that you still think about?

MM: Definitely the back injury which kept me out of the Sydney Olympics. I had really wanted to compete in my 3rd Olympics, and these would have been in my home country. Sadly, the thing about diving is that in a career you’ll do about 250,000 dives, each one hyperextending your back and then flinging your legs over. It takes its toll, and for me, that toll was back surgery.

Harbus: Although, I’m led to believe you kept contributing to the sport after this?

MM: Immediately after I finished, I commentated for TV and radio – I like radio more as you don’t have to shave! Then I got involved with the administrative side. In 1999, I became an Australian selector, and held this job through to the Athens 2004 games that just finished. Those games were a real highlight outside of my own competing, as it was the most successful Australian team ever – we won one gold, two silvers and four bronzes among a team of seven people. And we were 2nd on the diving medal tally behind China, exceeding all expectations from myself, from the Australian Olympic Committee, from the Government and so on. It had always been a dream to witness an Australian diving Gold in my lifetime, and I didn’t have to wait too long!

Harbus: Why have the Chinese been so dominant?

MM: They have taken a very scientific approach to training. They actually hadn’t competed in the Olympics until 1984. They just turned up and won a Gold, which is unheard of. However, it turned out that ten years before they took videos of all the top divers, got a bunch of biomechanists to deconstruct the physical movements. This allowed them to calculate the most efficient ways to spin and so on, as well as identifying the perfect body types for diving. They got Chinese government funding in a big way, and started recruiting all around the country, not just on talent, but also by measuring children, and – would you believe it – measuring the growth profiles of their parents.

Harbus: Athlete, selector, board member – is this it?

MM: I think I’d like to have broader involvement in sports. I’m interested in the business of sports, maybe at the Olympic level, managing a portfolio of sports and balancing funding needs. Or maybe a specific sport. I think I’ll be closely involved in sports forever.

Harbus: Has sport become too commercialized in your opinion?

MM: There is a difficult tension here. It has had to get more commercialized as the cost of putting on big events like the Olympics has risen. There is a point when sports would be too commercialized, but I don’t think we’re there yet. That being said, it’s a strange feeling to walk around the Olympic Village and see someone like Michael Jordan. You’re earning next to nothing, and actually spending heaps to get there, and he’s on $40 million a year. You’re theoretically all equals at the Olympics, but there are massive differences in resources.

Harbus: Speaking of the Olympic Village, are the parties there all they are made out to be?

MM: Absolutely. You have four years of steam build up and it’s a pressure cooker environment. For four years, you’ve been restricted in some way or another, be it alcohol, food, sex, whatever. So you see a lot, and engage in whatever you can when you finish your event. The Olympic Village basically collapses into a massive beer garden. By the last day, only the marathoners have to compete and it’s party central, with room parties until 5am or 6am routinely. There are some really fit guys who are drunk on one beer. There are also some huge guys (like weightlifters, shot putters etc) who put them away like you wouldn’t believe and have eating competitions. One guy was famous for a special rolling technique where he could eat a whole pizza in 30 seconds!

Harbus: What about sex?

MM: You do hear stories ranging from people having sex zero times to several hundred times at the Olympics. Thousands of condoms are sent in, and the sponsor typically underestimates requirements by a factor of three to four. So you might say that some ‘healthy getting to know each other’ occurs – not that I was a part of it, of course.

Harbus: Of course. And we hear you went on a bit of an eating rampage when you retired from diving?

MM: It was like ending an Olympics, but I had
16 years or so of steam to let off. I was 77kg (169 lb) in January 1998, and had hit around 105kg (231 lb) by January 1999. It came from being at college, drinking lots, not exercising, and eating lots of Burger King and McDonalds. I got to about 90kg (198 lb) and it was just fun and I had barely realized I’d put on the weight. So it became a weird challenge to me to get up to 100kg (220 lb) just once in my life. I was at 99kg (218 lb) and ordered a huge curry, which I ate all by myself. I weighed in at 101kg (222 lb) – I’d skipped 100kg (220lb) altogether! I had a mixed feeling of achievement and despair at how I’d lose it.

Harbus: And how did you get back down to 80kg (176 lb)?

MM: Lots of long, aerobic exercise like walking and cycling, less drinking and better eating habits.

Harbus: Aside from this diet advice, what advice would you give to athletes?

MM: Follow whatever you are passionate about. You can get a hard time as a young boy diving in Australia (which is rugby and cricket mad). There was lots of peer pressure. I could have done OK in other sports, but never as well as I did when I followed what I wanted passionately.

Harbus: Michael, thank you for your time.

MM: My pleasure.