INDIANAPOLIS – It’s only fitting that Robert Murphy has become a star in the steeplechase.
The former Warsaw long distance ace has been clearing obstacles his entire life.
Murphy, now completing his senior season at IUPUI, is headed to compete in the NCAA Track Championships starting Wednesday night in Eugene, Oregon.
Murphy, who was diagnosed with autism at age three, punched his ticket to the Nationals by placing third in the NCAA East Regional May 26 at the University of Kentucky. His effort in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, which requires runners to clear hurdles and water jumps, made him the first NCAA qualifier in the 46-year history of the IUPUI program.
“Robert is just an amazing young man,” said IUPUI track coach Chuck Koeppen in a recent phone interview. “All of us in our program are just so proud of him and what he’s accomplished. It’s just been a big thrill to see the success he has had here.”
Murphy starred at WCHS where he, along with standout teammates Jake Poyner and Ellis Coon, helped coach Jim Mills’ cross country team to a program best fourth-place finish at the State Finals in 2012. He then went on to earn All-American honors for two years at Vincennes University before landing at IUPUI.
Murphy just missed qualifying for the NCAA Track Championships a year ago, finishing less than a second away from advancing. He made sure to earn his spot in the event with a third-place finish in a personal-best time of 8:44.91.
“It was definitely exciting and a good feeling,” said Murphy about his regional performance. “It was one of my more satisfying finishes. My goal was to make it to the Nationals and I did it.”
Koeppen has seen a lot during his illustrious coaching career that will hit 50 years next season. He guided the Carmel cross country and track programs to a total of 23 state championships in 37 years before taking over at IUPUI in 2008.
“Robert is just driven and does not like to lose,” remarked Koeppen. “He wants to be good. He’s done everything we have asked of him and given us everything he has. We knew about him in high school and then when he went to Vincennes. We’re fortunate that he chose to come to IUPUI. It’s worked out well and been a great fit for everyone.”
Murphy has excelled both on the track and in the classroom. He earned the Mel Garland Distinguished Student-Athlete award in April, the highest honor awarded to an athlete at IUPUI. Murphy was also named to the Academic All-Summit League Team last week. Murphy, who is also a national finalist for the D1 Men’s HERO of the Year Award sponsored by HERO Sports, had a 3.71 GPA as he earned his degree in Media Arts & Science.
Jeff Murphy, Robert’s father, has watched his youngest of two sons make an amazing journey since he first tried running at Lakeview Middle School in Warsaw.
“Robert spends a lot of time focused on running and his studies,” said Jeff, who himself was an All-American runner at Hillsdale College in Michigan. “He does not have a lot of the distractions that some others do in college. But he is really motivated and just has a determination to be good. He wants to kick butt out there when he’s competing.
“The biggest thing was relief when he qualified at the Regional. He was so close last year and we thought that he could do it this year. It was just the satisfaction of him making it. It was definitely exciting to watch him do it. It’s amazing how far he has come and I just love watching him run.”
The younger Murphy started his running career as a middle school sprinter. He was just an average runner at WCHS early on before hitting his stride late in his prep career.
“Robert came into our program as a typical freshman,” noted Warsaw coach Jim Mills. “He was this introverted, quiet guy who kept to himself.
“You never know what kind of success a kid will end up having. At that point, did I see this kind of success in Robert’s future? No. But, he had the perfect parents in Jeff and Lynn to help him succeed and I think that his whole support system here and the environment benefited him.
“Robert has always worked hard. He just goes out and runs. He does not overthink stuff, like a lot of runners do and I think that has helped him. I never had to worry about Robert during a race in high school. Not once. He was always going to be where he needed to be at the end.”
Jeff Murphy says that is was an inauspicious start to both distance and steeplechase for his son at first.
“We were thrilled when Robert chose track in middle school,” related Murphy. “Autistic people do not like new things though. His first reaction to running cross country was no way. But he did the triathlon at Lakeview (that all students were required to do) and went from there. The coach at Vincennes asked him to try steeplechase and he said no at first. But he saw his teammates doing it and he did it.
“Running gives him a focus and he’s just kept getting better and better in high school and in college. He’s certainly had great coaches the entire way in Jim Mills in high school, Chris Gafner at Vincennes and Chuck Koeppen at IUPUI. But he has really pushed himself and performed at a high level consistently.”
Koeppen says that his star has taught everyone in his program much during his two years in Indianapolis.
“I’ve learned so much from Robert and so has our team,” Koeppen stated. “Robert is The Man around here. There’s a special place in our hearts for him.
“When he qualified at the Regional I was going crazy. I was hugging and high-fiving everyone around me. I was like Jimmy V running around the court when he won the national championship. It was just a great moment for all of us.”
Murphy, who holds IUPUI records in the 800 and 1,500-meter runs and the 3,000 and 5,000-meter steeplechase events, will compete in the prelims Wednesday night at 8:02 p.m. (Eastern time) and then in the finals Friday night if he qualifies. The top five finishers in each of two prelim heats, along with the top two remaining times, will advance to the finals on Friday at 8:54 p.m. (ET).
“I’m trying not to stress too much about Nationals,” noted Murphy. “My goal was to make it and now I can say I did that. I am eager to kick another good run. I have no real plan, but would like to make it to the finals.”
Mills, who has had a long and highly-successful prep coaching career, was thrilled to witness Murphy’s performance in person at the Regional.
“I know that I was way more cranked up at that race than I have been in a long time,” admitted Mills. “Robert is just a perfect example of what athletics is really all about. He’s persevered. He’s overcome challenges. It’s about hard work and not giving up.
“The journey really is the reward. It’s about what you learn along the way and how you handle things along the way. That’s what athletics is all about. I know that there is a sense of pride in me seeing what Robert has been able to accomplish. It makes you feel good.”
Murphy credits running for being a big part of his life.
“I’m not sure what my life would have been like without running,” Murphy said. “I’m thankful that I did this.
“It’s been a long, but great journey.”
A truly amazing one for an amazing young man.