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By Johanna Gretschel - MileSplit Correspondent
Two years ago, Kate Murphy was one of top prep track and field athletes on the planet, a true blue-chipper.
The junior from Lake Braddock High School in Virginia competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials and ran 4:07.21 for 1500m--which still stands as the third-fastest mark in prep history behind only high school pros Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson. She won the USATF 3K national title over future Oregon teammate Katie Rainsberger and placed 12th at the IAAF World U20 Championships.
As a senior, she anchored her team's distance medley relay with a stunning solo 4:38 split to set the indoor national high school record at 11:34.85.
It seemed like she could do anything.
But a rare vascular condition--popliteal artery entrapment syndrome--limited Murphy's final season of high school track. Last September, she had surgery to remove the popliteus muscles in both of her knees, along with a section of her right calf muscle.
After several comeback attempts resulted in further injury, she was forced to redshirt her entire freshman year at the University of Oregon.
We caught up with the super-talent to chat about her summer running, adjustments to college life in the Pacific Northwest and the new changes to the Ducks' coaching staff.
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What are you up to this summer?
I was gonna take an online class. I already took one the first four weeks but it was so stressful because you condense 10 weeks of school into four weeks so I dropped that class. I'm pretty much just focusing on running and cross training right now.
I saw you posted on social media about running again. What's been going on since your surgery last year?
It's been a unique year.
I had the surgery in September for popliteal artery entrapment syndrome. It's honestly pretty rare; I had never heard of it. It took eight months to diagnose. I had the surgery to remove both muscles and as soon as I got to Oregon, I was doing rehab and cross training.
There was no set timeline [to start running again], it was however I felt. Most of the people who get the surgery are not training for certain things. They're not doing track. It takes them a long time to get back to doing exercise at all. I'm assuming maybe the normal person's recovery time would be a half year to a year and I was back running around October. But just a little bit.
It was up and down in the fall. Around Pac 12 XC, the most I was running was 10 minutes. Throughout the whole year, I just kept getting injured.
The first injury I had to stop running from was after winter break. I did a few workouts the first week back. I think my shins had been hurting the whole month but not to the point where I had to stop, and I finally got to the point where I felt like my shin was about to break. So I took a month off for that. I was on the AlterG for a solid two months and I was about to start running on land when my achilles just starting hurting like crazy.
The week before I left to come home for summer, I got an MRI and it was a stress reaction in my femur. I took a month off. In early July, I started running easy for 5 minutes.
Right now, I'm at 20 minutes. I'm supposed to be going up to 30 minutes but I've been more conservative and run less because sometimes random things still hurt.
Were you planning to redshirt the whole year from the beginning?
I was so ambitious after surgery. It was a quick turnaround because I hadn't gotten diagnosed until August and then got surgery less than three weeks later.
I was like, 'yes, this is gonna fix it, yes, recovery!'
"There were times when I honestly questioned if I should stay at Oregon."
I was planning on racing indoors because I felt so good over winter break but I think that was a big illusion in my mind. I was so ready to get back to competing that I thought, 'I can still make it to outdoor with my shin hurting,' but once my achilles popped up, I was extremely frustrated and getting really mad because then I knew I had to redshirt my whole freshman year. There was point where I definitely burnt out on cross training in the winter; I was going crazy because I hated being in the pool everyday.
But then whenever I cross trained, I was like 'I have time now,' [whereas] I was in a rush to get back before.
Were you ignoring pain because you wanted to get back to competition?
For sure. I don't think I was pain-free for almost any of the year. I got to a point that I was so used to it. That was a big issue with me because I love running and I feel like it makes me feel good, so if I'm in pain, I'm ignoring it.
There was a point in the year where I was like, 'I'm bored, I'm gonna go run,' it was so bad. And then I just got injured again.
What were your coaches' expectations for you?
Grant, my athletic trainer, had the idea in the beginning that I could potentially come back for a season, but sometimes you just gotta redshirt the whole year. Maurica wanted me to come back, too, maybe outdoors in the original plan--because she knows I love competing.
Most of the time I was optimistic, but there was a point when I came back from winter break and I was getting really angry. There was starting to be tension between me and Maurica because I hadn't been running. She never really got to coach me that much; there were a few workouts but we were getting frustrated. We both wanted me to compete and start running and be healthy and it was just not working. So I was having to rely on Grant more. He was really good about it the whole year and I think that's one of the reasons I felt the need to keep going.
There were times when I honestly questioned if I should stay at Oregon.
I think the whole year would have been better if I came in with the mindset that I was going to redshirt the whole year. It was definitely hard knowing I can't compete in season after season, but it happens.
Maurica and Andy Powell are heading to Washington. Did you have any thoughts about transferring?
No. Maurica was the one who recruited me, but I didn't go to Oregon just for her. I think me and Maurica, it was tough for both of us that whole year. I'm excited for her to do that, but I'm more excited to get new coaches, a fresh start.
I have not met the new coaches, but I've heard great things about both of them. All of my [Virginia] Tech friends love [Coach Thomas], so I'm excited.
I was shocked, honestly, I had no clue they were leaving. I think the girls were pretty shocked, too. We all were just trying to be supportive of one another, stick-together type mentality. I know some of the girls are transferring and it's gonna be a whole different team next year, but whatever happens, it will all be good for the team and it's a new dynamic every year anyway.
The people that are staying are excited. We've heard they're really quality and [Lehman-Winters] specializes in distance and Ben Thomas from Tech, he's more mid-distance, so I think it's a good balance.
I would never leave my team. Even though I didn't run, I still am passionate about being there. I feel loyal even though I almost feel like I wasn't even on the team--I was just there to cheer and support. I'm excited for next year.
Did you find other activities or things on campus to distract you while not being able to compete?
I started [thinking about] what I want to do, what I'm interested in doing once I graduate. Oregon is a big Nike school, so I was thinking about different paths to take academically to get to the point where I will be ready when I graduate.
I was going to do business. Now I think either psychology or journalism.
What was your toughest adjustment to the classroom?
I honestly felt pretty confident because the county where I'm from was pretty challenging, academics-wise. [Oregon] made us do eight hours of mandatory tutoring every week, Monday through Thursday. It was such a tight-packed schedule that if I wasn't cross-training, I'd be in class or rehab or tutoring at any given moment.
That's the D1 lifestyle!
They want us to succeed academically, so I get it--but It was a lot.
Toughest adjustment to dorm life?
I think just having to leave your room to go to the bathroom! I never had any alone time, just me in the room, but it's part of the college experience so it'll feel even better next year when I have my own room.
Was your roommate on the track team?
Yeah, she's from Carlsbad, California, and her name is Kiley [McCarthy]. The first term, it was crazy, so crazy--she would black out a little bit sometimes, so she got an MRI on her brain and she had this massive brain tumor. She had to leave fall term but she came back in the winter and she was all better. It was wild, super rare, too. It's from birth, but she didn't start having symptoms until last summer.
Watch the Duck TV Sports feature on Kiley McCarthy:
Honestly, I was like, 'is this for real, what is this?' when I got to Oregon. I was still recovering and she got her thing. It was just bizarre, but at the same time, we both went through struggles together freshman year. It definitely was a bonding experience.
What's your favorite memory from freshman year--on the track and off the track?
I loved going to football games. That was the highlight of fall; a lot of the team went together and I felt like a part of [the team]. Basketball games, too. It's a big athletic school.
For track, I gotta say the two highlights were when I got to travel with the actual team to Bill Dellinger and Pac 12s to watch. We were all also watching Sabrina's race when she won the 800 indoors [NCAA title]. That was a big highlight.
"I think when people get upset about it, I'm just like, 'they're already gonna do it anyway so you might as well not get upset and just be excited because it's happening!'"
What was more nerve wracking to watch--Sabrina's NCAA title in the 800m indoors or Jessica Hull's NCAA title in the 1500m outdoors?
Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I would say Jess just because I was watching it in person, but I think they were both equally... Sabrina...oh man, it got me in chills.
What are your thoughts on the Hayward Field renovations?
I'm excited. I think when people get upset about it, I'm just like, 'they're already gonna do it anyway so you might as well not get upset and just be excited because it's happening!' It looks pretty cool.
Where will the team workout?
I think it's gonna be South Eugene High School and Lane Community College. I worked out a few times at South Eugene and it was fine. I honestly don't mind working out other places, having a change of scenery. It'll be done April of my junior year. They tore it down so fast, I was shocked.
Have you made a plan with Grant or Robert Johnson about getting back to competition next year?
I haven't made a plan for competition. Right now, it's just trying to get back to running. After four to six weeks, it gets a lot easier. I'm in a weird position because every time I've tried to come back and get close to being ready, I just get hurt again. I'm just playing it by ear. I really want to compete in cross country, but at the same time, I almost broke my femur. I don't want to be super-rushed to race in the fall because it's a lot of pressure to come back in the summer. You don't want to get hurt again.
What's one thing you wish someone had told you a year ago?
Be involved. For athletes, it's hard to be involved in a bunch of different things--it's mostly just your sport. I wish someone had told me to figure out right away something you really like to do to help you cope with not being able to do what you want to do.
It's probably something that I'm going to continue to [work on]. In college, there isn't a lot of time to think or have personal time or feel sorry for yourself. Now I know how to be tough.
It took a really long time throughout the year to get to the point where I would stop getting upset about things.
Was it hard to adjust to being so far away from home?
It hit me in the winter. In the fall, I was just mind-blown and in awe of everything. There was culture shock. I'm not the only one because my best friends on the team were from New York and they felt the same way with the culture. Honestly, it takes awhile to get adjusted but I think being on a team helps at least a little bit.
I think whenever I wanted to go home, I would call somebody, one of my friends, and tell them how I was feeling. Just talking to someone about it can relieve you for a little bit. It was not easy for some of them, either, they were having the same issues, getting hurt or not feeling like they belonged. Freshman year is hard, even without being injured.
The main people I keep in touch with [from high school] are our DMR--Skyla [Davidson] runs for JMU and Shannon [Browning] runs at Mizzou. All of us were injured throughout the year and it definitely helped knowing that we all had to tough it out.
What advice would you give a freshman who enters college with an injury?
A tip for anybody coming back from injury is--in high school, it's a little bit different. I would always get annoyed at my coaches for holding me back from doing too much. In college, it's more important--if you're really ambitious--it's important to hold yourself back.
It's really easy to get injured when you're coming back from a prior injury and I feel like most people know that, but I got to the point where I was like, 'I really don't care, I want to run again.'
So it's important to be patient.
I learned how to underwater treadmill this year and how to alterG and I have tips because I would literally go so fast on the AlterG that I gave myself whiplash. I am so crazy. I have learned the hard way.