Dreaming Big and Winning Gold

The world knows Ryan Murphy as an Olympian, but you might not know he also lives with chronic migraine.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

He tried his very best to avoid the inevitable. It was 2012, and 16-year-old Ryan Murphy was sitting on a plane on his way to Olympic trials. He noticed a growing “hot” feeling in his body, the first telltale sign of an oncoming migraine. “So, I’m trying to guzzle some ice water, put ice on my neck, and trying to decrease the pain that way,” Murphy, now 26, remembers. “Then that doesn’t work, so [I think], ‘OK, I’m going to try to sleep a little bit, close my eyes and try to relax.’” But that didn’t work, either. “The last step for me is that I’ll throw up,” he says. “So, I’m running down the aisle of the plane, and I end up throwing up in and around the first-class cabin.”

The inevitable had happened.

Murphy recalls this as the moment he knew he had to get a handle on his migraine symptoms. The experience was “embarrassing,” especially for an up-and-coming athlete with big Olympic dreams. Fast forward nine years, and those dreams have come true in a big way: Ryan Murphy is a three-time Olympic gold medalist and widely considered the best backstroke competitor in the world (he holds a world record in the men’s 100 meters). Later this summer, he will make his way to Tokyo to compete in his second Summer Olympic Games. And he’s doing all this while living with chronic migraine.

Ryan Murphy
Courtesy of Christopher Anderson

“I’ve been dealing with migraine from a young age,” says Murphy. It hasn’t been easy, but it has taught him a great deal, which is why he’s sharing his story in partnership with Eli Lilly while prepping for the big games. “It has impacted me in little ways, but ultimately, the ways that I am trying to lower my risk of getting a migraine are all things that help me in the pool.” His go-to daily routine includes yoga, meditation, and a consistent bedtime to keep stress at bay, which also keeps him in tip-top shape to perform at his best athletically.

Still, it’s challenging to maintain a consistent schedule when you travel as much as Murphy does. (Jet lag is no joke.) According to Murphy, “The hardest part about migraine is how unexpected it is. It comes at inopportune times mostly for me.” To minimize the chances of a bad episode, he tries to prepare for every trip as much as possible to stay grounded. “A lot of the time migraine comes as a result of stress,” he says, “so when I have a lot going on and then you couple that with the migraine, it is a little bit tough to deal with.”

Ryan Murphy
Courtesy of Christopher Anderson

One of the biggest misconceptions Murphy faces is the myth that migraine is short-lived. In reality, he often feels the effects of a headache for a day or two after the initial pain fades. “In days where it comes on and there is not a ton going on or [there are] things that I can cancel, I do that and focus on getting rest and recovery,” he explains. But as any elite athlete will tell you, sometimes you just have to push through the pain. “On days where there is a lot going on, then it’s like, ‘Alright, I’m going to power through,’” Murphy says. He chugs ice water to try to relieve his headache—and if worse comes to worst, he goes to throw up, then comes back to keep training. “It’s definitely not easy on those days,” he recalls, “but that’s how I’ve dealt with it.”

As he prepares to have the world’s eyes on him again in a few weeks, Murphy feels grateful for that unexpected extra year of preparation. (The 2020 Olympics were postponed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) “I’m really happy with how this year of training went,” he says. “I know that sounds a little bit odd, but I think the pandemic allowed me to just really focus in on the training. I feel like I’m in a really good spot.” As for why he is speaking up about this—and shattering the stereotype that Olympians are invincible—Murphy has a message for kids who share this condition: “I want to let them know that you can accomplish your dreams even while dealing with migraine.” By all measures, he certainly has.

Ryan Murphy
Courtesy of Christopher Anderson

8 Quick Tips From Ryan Murphy on Reaching Your Potential With Migraine

  1. Managing migraine is a full-time job, but it’s worth it.

  2. Minimizing stress will help you mentally and physically.

  3. Yoga, meditation, and therapy can help everyone, Olympians included.

  4. Treat your water bottle like it’s your phone: Carry it everywhere.

  5. Know yourself well enough to know when you can push through…

  6. …and when you need to take a break.

  7. Sometimes a bad moment can be the catalyst for a major life change.

  8. You can achieve your dreams with migraine. Take it from a world record holder.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.