Swimming coach Kevin Ross noticed the eight-year-old boy hanging around the edge of the pool, watching his brother compete. Danial Murphy stood alone, apart from his father. Ross waited for a pause and went over to introduce himself.
He suggested he join the team.
Danial agreed to give it a try. He’d had a stroke before he was born, and that left him with cerebral palsy and a right arm that can’t do much. At one point, his doctors wondered if he’d be able to walk. Danial explored outlets: he tried horseback riding, skating, and downhill skiing (“That could have ended badly,” he says). None clicked.
Coach Ross had been looking for someone like Danial. His swim team wasn’t set up for people with disabilities, but he knew recruiting them would benefit everyone. He poured his decades of coaching knowledge into Danial and by age 12, he had earned a spot on the able-bodied Sackville Waves Aquatic Team. He drew others and at one point it was the biggest integrated swim club in Canada.
“At first, it was just his work ethic. He would try everything as hard as he could go. Not always smart, but he always worked very hard,” Ross says.
Murphy added the smarts and by 15 he was aiming for a place on the national and international stage.
“It’s getting to compete, doing the sport, and the people you meet. It’s such a good time training with the people you train with, the kind of friends you have on the team. That’s what drives me to continue,” Murphy says.
Murphy set national para-swimming records in the men’s 50-metre freestyle, 100-metre freestyle, 200-metre freestyle, 50-metre backstroke, and 50-metre butterfly. According to the Swim Nova Scotia website, Murphy broke Canadian records in those events at every major event he has attended since 2009.
In 2013, he competed in four events at the IPC World Championships in Montreal. He reached two finals and placed twice in the top 10. In 2014, he took two bronzes at the Pan Pacific Paraswimming Championships in California. His medals came in the 200-metre freestyle and the 50-metre backstroke. He also broke the Canadian records for the 200-metre freestyle and 100-metre backstroke.
He qualified for the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships in Scotland in 2015 and the Toronto Parapan Am Games that same year. In Toronto, he reached five finals and set Canadian records in the 50-metre freestyle and the 50-metre butterfly.
“Danial is an incredible worker,” Ross says. “Everyone notices it. He inspires swimmers with his physical proof that an iron will crushes many obstacles. He makes sure that he competes at the local level, not just nationally. He wants to make sure that reach is out there.”
Murphy fought hard to earn a spot on Canada’s Paralympic Team for the 2016 Games in Brazil, but didn’t make the cut. Then organizers banned the entire Russian team for doping, which opened up 267 precious spots.
“I kind of found out that there was a possibility I might be able to go in the middle of July,” Murphy says. “I continued with my normal schedule. With the level I swim at, I probably shouldn’t [take] 10 weeks off over the summer anyway.”
He put in the training time as if he were preparing for the biggest competition of his life. He teaches swimming at the Sackville Sports Stadium, too, meaning he rarely was far from the water all summer. He knew he wanted coach Ross with him if he made it to Rio de Janeiro. He suggested it, and Ross agreed that would be nice. Even if Murphy landed a spot at the Games, it would cost about $7,000 to get the coach to Rio.
In late August, barely a week before opening ceremonies, Swimming Canada made it official: Murphy was heading to the Paralympics. Within days he was on a plane to Toronto to meet the 26-member team, and then flying south to Rio. Before he left, he started a GoFundMe to get his coach there with him. It had $80 in it. “I thought ‘Oh! Isn’t that nice,’” Ross says.
He didn’t expect to join Murphy in Rio. But the ripple effect kicked in and all those swim people Murphy had helped and befriended over the last two decades poured $4,500 into the GoFundMe page. He also received support from the Nova Scotia Swim Coaches Association. Murphy used the money to fly coach Ross to one of the greatest sporting events on Earth.
“You have over 10,000 people stamping their feet, cheering and going crazy, and Danial was one of the first events on the first day,” Ross says.
As the first event started, coach Ross noticed the 27-year-old man hanging around the edge of the pool.
Danial stood alone, apart from the officials. Ross waited for a pause. He locked his eyes on Danial, just as he had 20 years earlier when he first invited him into the pool. “I yelled, quite loud, ‘Let’s go Canada! Let’s go Danial!’” Danial heard the rally call, relaxed his shoulders, and dove into the water.
Murphy had competed in Brazil twice before, but never on such a stage. He would race in the 200-metre freestyle, the 50-metre butterfly and the 100-metre freestyle. Murphy finished sixth in his heat for the 200-metre freestyle, and placed 13th overall. For both the 100-metre and 50-metre, Murphy placed 15th overall.
“I was pretty excited to be there and be a part of the team,” Murphy says.