Robert Murphy didn’t have the race he wanted at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. But his parents, Lynn and Jeff Murphy, were thrilled just to see him on the track. The time he ran at the national meet means nothing compared to the barriers he had already hurdled to get there.
After all, when he was younger, they worried that their son, who is on the autism spectrum, might not graduate from high school.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lynn Murphy said on Wednesday while sitting in the bleachers above the track at the University of Oregon. “Never would we ever have imagined we’d be sitting at Hayward Field.”
Murphy, from Warsaw, Indiana, is a 3,000-meter steeplechaser who just finished his senior year at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Racing on Wednesday night in a semifinal heat, he needed to finish in the top five to advance automatically to the final on Saturday. Murphy was 10th in his heat in 9:10.92, well off the 8:44.91 he ran two weeks ago to qualify for nationals.
“It was not what I expected, but the whole season I was just [aiming] to make it here,” Murphy said after his race. “I guess I was just burned out.”
Murphy has garnered extra attention lately. In early May, the Indianapolis Star first reported on how he developed as a runner while overcoming challenges in speech and communication associated with autism.
It’s possible he’s the first runner with autism to make it to the NCAA Division I championships, but IUPUI officials don’t know for sure. What is known is that he’s the first athlete in IUPUI history to qualify for nationals in track. And he’s proud of that.
“I don’t really think about my autism that much,” he said. “I don’t care to be known for that. It’s not that important to me.”
His parents, however, can’t separate his running from his autism. They recounted how they weren’t sure he could run track in eighth grade, because they didn’t know if he’d be able to tie his shoes. As a young child, he didn’t answer questions; he echoed back what people were asking. And he was prone to frequent, public meltdowns.
Now he lives in an apartment on his own, cooks for himself, and maintained a 3.7 GPA through IUPUI, where he majored in media arts and science. He runs up to 80 miles a week, which helps make him one of the top college steeplers in the country—and channel his abundant energy. He’s also made fast friends through running in high school and on the IUPUI team.
“The running has really helped him integrate into the world, I think,” Jeff Murphy said. “He’s so successful, his teammates just rally around him and want to spend time with him. They kind of look out for him. He struggles in some situations, they help bring him along. Which is great. It’s really been awesome.”
This article first appeared on Runner's World.