"It’s cool to feel this sense of community and really working together to beat this thing," the gold medalist tells PEOPLE

By Ashley Boucher
March 31, 2020 11:53 AM
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Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

Ryan Murphy was asleep when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced last week that the 2020 Summer Olympics would be delayed by a year.

“I was asleep, and my phone just like started ringing, and was like on fire,” the backstroke champion tells PEOPLE of the moment he found out the news. “I was on the phone like basically all day with teammates, coaches, family, friends.”

But as “heartbreaking” as Murphy says it was to hear the postponement was official, it was a decision that didn’t surprise him, given the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The 2020 U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team head coach Dave Durden told Murphy over the phone that the postponement was “inevitable,” he says.

“At first, like the human side of me is like, it’s devastating. It’s devastating that this pandemic is happening,” Murphy says, adding that “on the athlete side of me, it’s also heartbreaking” that the Games won’t be held this summer.

“I love following a plan, and this is a time where you can’t really have a plan. Everything is so fluid,” the University of California, Berkeley, alum says. “And even now, as we start to plan towards 2021, that’s a moving target.”

While it’s challenging to train for a competition now one year further away, Murphy says he’s in a fortunate position.

“For me, it’s not going to change too much,” he says, explaining that he always intended to continue swimming after the Games. “The plan changed, but my goals have not changed. So I think that’s a big takeaway here.”

Another big takeaway for Murphy is the power of a positive attitude in the face of crisis.

“We don’t have the ability to control this,” he says. “What we can control is our attitude and how we approach it and how we support each other and in our communities. That’s really what I’m trying to do, just be as supportive as I can to my family, my friends and my community to the medical community, and just being as educated as possible on everything.”

Murphy says that there has been “such a strong sense of community” throughout the week, and while he and his fellow athletes have been feeling a “big mix of emotions … everyone realizes that this is the right decision and the best decision for the world and our country.”

Murphy, who competed at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil, taking home three gold medals, adds that there is “100 percent” a sense of camaraderie among the athletes he’s spoken to in the wake of the postponement.

“I think that at this time, it’s beautiful in the sense that like this is a major, major catastrophe and a huge event. This is the first time a lot of us have experienced this in our lifetime,” Murphy explains, adding that there is a focus on doing everything possible to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We were pretty young when 9/11 happened, and I feel like that was probably the last time that people have felt this time of community. And so for us, like it’s nice because all other things are put aside in order to work together to help medical community work through this. And I think that’s a really awesome thing.”

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“It’s cool to feel this sense of community and really working together to beat this thing,” he says.

Still, as Americans across the country practice social distancing and as several states, including California — where Murphy trains — are under stay at home orders, the swimmer is unsure when he’ll be able to get back into a pool.

“That’s one of the unknowns,” Murphy says. “We’re prepared either way. If we’re not able to get into a pool, we’re going to be doing other stuff to make sure that we can get in some cardio, some strength that when we are able to get into the pool, all we’ve got to get back is the feel of the water and the technique.”

So what are some of the ways Murphy has been staying fit while stuck at home — and on dry land?

He and his roommates have gotten creative — pushing his car uphill, doing pull-ups from trees, and using a boxing bag as a weight while doing squats, to name a few.

“I was actually so sore after that workout,” Murphy says.

Murphy will be taking a short break from training as he social distances and gives himself the “opportunity to mentally reset.”

Like many across the country who have been staying at home, Murphy says he’s “talked more on the phone this past week then I probably did in the past two months.”

“I really like the sense of community that we have right now as both the USA Swimming national team and then like more personally, my friend group,” he says.

“Everything is unchartered territory right now, and swimming and athletics are not exempt from that either.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.