Paralympic Powerlifting Hopeful Rohan Murphy

Rohan Murphy can’t stop smiling. Even when the 29-year-old paralympic powerlifting hopeful— capable of benching six plates without the use of his legs—is prompted by a photographer to show some grit during a 100-pound dumbbell bench press, a sneaky grin appears at the corners of his mouth.

No Excuses

His 2008 Nike “No Excuses” commercial, in which he dips, does handstand pushups, and spins around like a break dancer, is set to the happy-go-lucky tune of Burl Ives’ “The Doughnut song.” There’s a moment in the ad, after a set of dips, that he smiles, chuckles, and shakes his head like a coy teenager being asked to the prom. When asked why he smiles so much, his reply is, “Why not? Life is good.”

But when he was a kid, Murphy wasn’t always so elated. In fact, he felt like he was on the outside looking in when he’d go to friends’ Little League and soccer games. His older brother was a decent high school athlete, and Murphy would dutifully watch from the sidelines. He was named after one of his father’s sports heroes—Rohan Kanhai, a West Indian cricket player. He loved sports, but sports weren’t exactly in the cards. Due to a congenital deformity, Murphy had his legs amputated when he was just four years old.

“It was tough for me growing up disabled, because I rejected it,” Murphy says. “I wanted my life to be like everyone else’s.” Because he couldn’t play he felt he couldn’t be the one thing he wanted to be: a normal kid.

“What normal kid doesn’t want to play?” says Ron Croteau, wrestling coach and phys ed teacher at East Islip High School on Long Island, in New York, where Murphy grew up. “So we got him out to wrestling.”

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It started slowly. In eighth grade, Murphy was made manager of several East Islip sport teams. Then Coach Croteau had him working out, treating him like every one of the other kids. Eventually, Murphy hit the wrestling mats.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” says Murphy, “because I knew I was the only kid out there competing without legs, with a disability. But after that first year, it became easy—I knew I had nothing to lose.”

His first year wrestling—on the JV squad—he went 2–13. The next year, as a sophomore, he wrestled varsity and finished 25–6. He capped his senior year at East Islip with a 30–2 record.

“You see a lot of guys sitting out,” says Angel Rivera, a high school teammate of Murphy’s and currently a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in Islip, where Murphy now trains. “They’ve got cramps, they’ve got injuries, they’re tired, they don’t want to run their sprints. But there’s Rohan right alongside us, running on his hands. There’s nothing he feels he can’t do. And if someone tells him no, he’s going to try to prove them wrong.”

These days, Monday is a chest workout. Tuesday is back. Thursday is shoulders, and Friday is arms. Murphy’s four-day-a-week routine is grueling, with up to an hour and a half each day spent in Gold’s, where he’s had a free membership since the summer of 2010. His eyes are set on Rio, and qualifying for the 2016 Paralympic Games as a powerlifter—something he became interested in as a student at Penn State.

There, Murphy was a walk-on—“a walk-on without legs,” he jokes—with Troy Sunderland’s storied wrestling program. The team welcomed him and, as happened in high school, in a team environment he felt like a normal kid. He abandoned the prosthetic legs he occasionally wore. They weren’t him.

“I woke up. I said to myself, You know what? I don’t have legs, and my life is going to be difficult. And from then on I really embraced being disabled,” he says.

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He also has good—and painful—memories of Eric Childs, the strength and conditioning coach at Penn State, and the frst man to put a 45-pound plate on Murphy’s back for a pushup. Murphy calls him “the mad scientist” who designed the majority of Murphy’s workouts—the ones he now does every week at Gold’s, a combination of weights, calisthenics, and plyometrics fashioned to make Murphy’s upper-body strength truly imposing.

Murphy’s bench press—the lift he’s working on for the Rio games—is his main focus. His best press so far is 350, which he did in competition a few weeks ago. That number is truly remarkable considering that he doesn’t have legs. “Powerlifters are able to move so much weight in the bench press because they use their legs and hips to drive the weight,” says CJ Murphy (no relation to Rohan), M.F.S., a powerlifter and the owner of Total Performance Sports in Everett, MA. “Not having the ability to use leg drive makes Rohan’s strength much more impressive.”

No Elevator to Success

Murphy is working up to 375–400 pounds, and is still looking for sponsors for his powerlifting. When he’s not at the gym, he’s on the road, working as a motivational speaker hired by schools and corporations to provide “no excuses” inspiration and deliver common-sense encouragement. “I always tell people there’s no elevator to success,” he says. “If you want to do something special or meaningful, you have to take the stairs.”

Murphy recently spoke in Newtown, CT, where the Sandy Hook school shooting took place last December, and is currently launching CatchSpark, his own inspirational social network. Catchspark.com, which is going live soon, will have user-uploaded quotes, videos, and pictures, all geared toward inspiring the next Rohan Murphy. His goal—apart from a big bench—is to speak in every state in the U.S.

“You give every kid a chance,” says East Islip coach Croteau. “And because so many men and women did that for Murphy, and gave him room to work hard, there’s not a bit of cynicism, not even a hint of bitterness in him. He just had a great smile about him,” Croteau adds. “He was just a kid—you treated him like everybody else. But where he’s gone to now has just amazed me.” Murphy still stays in touch with the coaches who made all the diference to him, the coaches who took a chance on a kid without legs—Croteau, Sunderland, Childs, and Teri Jordan, Penn State’s disability recreation programs coordinator, who helped him pursue powerlifting in college.

Now, his eyes are set on Rio and the fnal 25 states he hasn’t spoken in yet. He’s found his next, newest family at Gold’s in Islip, where he can get whatever he needs, from a spot on the bench press to a kiss on the cheek. Right after we come in, a personal trainer named Debbie walks up to him, lays a smooch on his chop, and asks, “How’s my man today?” Murphy grins wider. He can’t stop smiling.