Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy opens up about life in the water with atopic dermatitis, learning to live with it so he can be where he’s most comfortable.
The question may be subjective, but the popular response tends to be a resounding yes. The admired physique is a byproduct of gliding through the pool, hours at a time.
Ryan Murphy loves being in the water. He always has, ever since he can remember.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist and the former world record holder for the 100 m backstroke has a textbook swimmer’s body, yet the 27-year-old champion still feels self-conscious at times wearing a Speedo.
That’s because Murphy, like professional surfer Coco Ho, deals with atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema.
Eczema can be irritated by sun and water, which presented a conundrum for six-year-old Ryan and his parents. He would experience flare-ups at swim meets, but despite the pain, nothing could remove him from his preferred environment.
In the water is where Ryan is the most comfortable; where he can be one with nature and take in the moment. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, he was surrounded by water, spending summers floating in the Atlanta Ocean and the St. Johns River. Considering the abundance of natural springs and pristine swimming spots near Jacksonville, it’s easy to imagine how Ryan’s connection with the water was fostered, especially as a student of The Bolles School. Ryan even plans on marrying his fiancée, longtime girlfriend Bridget Kontinnen, on the picturesque shores of Lake Tahoe.
From his competitive high school days to representing the Cal State Golden Bears to symbolizing American success as an Olympic medalist, Ryan has worked endlessly to reach the podium.
Now, Murphy uses his platform to call attention to a health issue that affects one in ten Americans. Murphy and Ho have partnered with Sanofi and Regeneron for “The Now Me: Beach Mode” program to prove that eczema doesn’t have to keep athletes out of their element.
Murphy spoke with FanSided about how he’s battled eczema to get to where he is today, offering insightful lessons he’s learned along the way.
Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy opens up about battling eczema to be one with nature
I understand that atopic dermatitis is something that has presented a challenge throughout your career, and I imagine there are so many other people who love swimming and deal with this, too. How has this affected your swimming career?
Yeah, I think I view it in a little bit more broad sense rather than how it’s impacted the swimming career.
Certainly growing up, there were some insecurities about wearing a small Speedo while having a flare-up with eczema. But I think overall, it’s been something that I’ve learned: mitigation techniques, things that worked for me, figured out treatment plans that work for me. Overall, I’m really excited to share my story and hopefully inspire everyone living with moderate to severe eczema to feel comfortable with their own skin.
I really love that because now you’re on the world stage, and we’re seeing you at the Olympics. This is a really powerful thing that you’re doing, especially promoting self-love and acceptance.
Is there a specific moment that you remember where you powered through these symptoms for a win?
Yeah, there’s a pretty specific moment. And I think, honestly, it makes sense for me to go back to one of the first times that I dealt with symptoms of eczema.
Growing up — I think it started as early as age six — where I thought I just had a rash. My parents thought I just had a rash. I was constantly itching. My arms, my legs, wherever the flare-up was, and that’s really what I thought it was. I thought it was related to allergies.
As I got older, there was a meet — I had just gotten into high school, and we were having a swim meet in Austin, Texas. At the beginning of the meeting, the eczema was starting in my legs. By the end of the meet, the eczema flared up all the way up my neck. It was hard to turn my neck. Very, very scaly skin.
So it’s just really uncomfortable. Every time I got into the water, constantly getting in and out of the water, drying off with a towel, drying off of with wet towel at that. Those are all things that weren’t necessarily great in terms of making the symptoms feel better. So that was a scenario where I did power through it in a competitive sense to still compete while the eczema was not great.
Can’t believe you went through all that, especially knowing where you are today and that’s where it started.
Was there ever a moment with you or even your parents who might have been worried where, ‘We know that this is eczema, and we know that sun and water can aggravate this’ — was there ever a moment where you wondered, ‘Should I be doing this?’
To be very, very direct, no. I think we’ve we felt really comfortable when we went to the doctor and we figured out that it was moderate to severe eczema (or atopic dermatitis) that we felt comfortable about creating a path forward. And I think it’s honestly been a really positive experience for me at this point.
And it’s awesome to be in a place now where I feel comfortable sharing my story, hopefully inspiring everyone living with moderate to severe eczema, to feel confident with their own skin. And I’m really appreciative for Sanofi and Regeneron for piloting this “Now Me: Beach Mode” campaign and for including me in it.
I’m so glad that you share that, because you are already a role model for kids, but also in this way for kids dealing with eczema.
Since last summer, let’s just recap: You now have six Olympic medals in only two games, which is incredible. You set an Olympic relay record, and you won your first World title this summer. This is winning at the highest level, and you’ve explained a little bit about how challenges have come your way and you always, as you said, found a positive path forward.
What’s been the driving force behind winning at the highest level?
I think honestly, the driving force has been that I’ve been really fortunate to have incredible people around me for my entire career. Going back to high school, just really by chance, I stumbled into a program that ended up being pretty much a top high school swimming program. All four years I was in high school. My teammates from high school — four different people — have gone on to win Olympic medals.
Then I was able to come to Cal and have really impressive athletes around me, have a really great coaching staff, and they taught me everything. My job is to go in, work really hard, and execute a game plan, communicate to the best of my ability so that they can do their jobs to the best of their ability. But it really does come down to people.
I’m glad that you bring up the special people in your life because I heard that you’re getting married to your college sweetheart Bridget, who was a varsity rower at Cal.
I wanted to know more about your wedding plans, and I was also wondering: I saw on Instagram that she was hoping for a dog, so did you get a dog yet?
Yeah, no on the dog front for right now. Right now, we’re still in an apartment building. So living on the seventh floor with a dog, it would be a little bit challenging, but she’s continuing to push on that one.
But really excited. We’ll get married in September of 2023 that will coincidentally be a beach wedding. It’s in Lake Tahoe on the water. So it’s going to be a really, really pretty venue. And you know, we’re just at the beginning of the planning. So right now, I’m really excited about it, and I’m really excited to kind of figure out what that weekend is going to look like.
That’s so exciting. I love the whole waterfront wedding, especially with both of you being water athletes. So you’re marrying someone from Cal, and I know you’re still involved with the program. How big of a place does Cal have in your heart?
Oh, wow. Yeah, Cal has been an incredible experience. I grew up in Florida. And really that’s where my love for the water started. I grew up swimming obviously, but Florida and in Jacksonville. There’s so much water everywhere. So I was going to the beach on the Atlantic Ocean. I was going to the St. Johns River. It felt like that’s what I enjoyed doing was just being around water.
And coming out to California, it was a completely different culture, a completely different experience. But it’s been really cool, and I’ve just found myself really motivated. Since I’ve been out here, both in the classroom being surrounded by really impressive, driven people, and also in the swimming pool. Just being surrounded by people that have Olympic aspirations is something that I’ve really been able to feed off of, and I think it’s made me a lot better.
It is so incredible to be part of a storied program like that, and go on to the Olympics and be connected to all of that.
And speaking of those Olympic connections, you know, in the past, Americans have often thought of Michael Phelps when we think of American swimming, now they’re thinking of you.
I love that and Rio 2016, you both won gold in the medley relay. I think of this as passing the baton, both literally and figuratively. What’s your connection been like with Michael, and what does having the baton passed mean to you?
Yeah, it’s really cool. And honestly, I don’t think of it in those terms. I always try to think of it as… There’s this great quote, and I really hope I don’t say this the wrong way. But in general, we’re able to see farther because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
That’s kind of something that I’ve thought of throughout my entire career. You’re constantly trying to build upon what people that have come before you in this sport. I’ve done both: from a specific competitive standpoint, I’m studying those people and I’m learning what they did. I’m talking to them about their mental makeup. I’m talking to them about how to inspire the next generation.
So you’re learning all these all of these traits that they really valued, and then you’re doing what you think is going to help push the sport forward and doing what you think is going to inspire the most people possible.
That’s really special. And so I want to ask you since you bring that up, and we’ve talked about how much you love the water, so I know even it’s been a challenge with AD, but what does being in the water mean to you as a safe space and a place to relax? What does that mean to you over your life and career?
I think honestly what I appreciate about the water in terms of being a relaxing outlet is right now, that it’s the only place where I can’t bring technology. It’s the only place where I don’t have my phone.
Even now, if we’re working out in the weight room, my workout is on my phone. And so swimming and being in the water, being at the beach, it’s the one place I could put all technology away and just be one with nature. Just really enjoy the moment.
And that’s where I do feel most comfortable, is no distractions, just existing with other people. Some of the best experiences of my life have happened at the beach, and that was a huge reason why I wanted to be part of the “Now Me: Beach Mode” campaign with Sanofi and Regeneron.
That’s such an important message for all of us, and we see what you do in the water without distractions right? You go ahead and win.
Ryan and professional surfer Coco Ho have teamed up to join “The Now Me: Beach Mode” program, in partnership with Dupixent, to educate the public about the realities and challenges people with moderate-to-severe AD face, helping them find treatment plans so they can activate “Beach Mode” all year long.