The road to the Olympics is one that requires a huge amount of dedication from athletes hoping to compete: early mornings, grueling training and intense competition for a shot that only comes around every four years.
For backstroke swimmer Ryan Murphy, the early morning call time for training is no problem — especially with the Tokyo, Japan, Games now just months away.
“I just love the motivation levels that I can hit in this year, I feel like that’s something that’s really fun,” Murphy tells PEOPLE in an interview. “You’re never having to hit the snooze button to wake up, in an Olympic year. Everything is very exciting; the training is really exciting.”
But despite the excitement, getting to Tokyo doesn’t come without its challenges. 24-year-old Murphy first has to get past the Olympic trials, where he says the competition will be fierce.
“The U.S. is really, really good in backstroke,” Murphy, who made his Olympic debut four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, says.
“I think we had three guys in the top six in the world last year, and only two of those guys are going to make the Olympics,” he explains, “so that is a big challenge. Just going up against a really, really good field.”
Murphy is hopeful, however — but says once he’s at the Olympics, the competition won’t let up.
“It’s a really, really tight field, so it’s going to be close races,” the University of California, Berkeley, grad says.
“I think the biggest thing is just managing the pressure — just like not letting the pressure be greater than the pleasure,” he says, explaining that the phrase is a “mantra” he’s been “pushing this year.”
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“You always want to keep the pleasure greater than the pressure,” he says, adding that when he does feel “a particular pressure coming in a little bit more,” that can be a reminder for him to “take a step back and realize that this is a sport, and it’s really fun to be competing at a high level.”
Since competing in Rio — where he took home three gold medals, swept the backstroke events and helped the U.S. win gold in the 4×100 meter medley relay, setting a world record in the process — Murphy has gone from a college athlete to a professional swimmer, counting Speedo, Goldfish Swim School and Bridgestone Tires among his sponsors.
But in addition to that level-up, Murphy says the biggest difference between his last Olympics and the looming Tokyo games is a change in lifestyle.
“Now, I really view performance as a lifestyle. So there’s so many things that go into a performance, and I think those are the areas where I really improved over the past four years,” he says, adding he’s “really, really dialed into my diet, my sleep, recovery, mental health. Those are all factors in performance and those are all things that I feel like I am investing a lot more into this time around as opposed to 2016.”
He’s also had a lot more time in the pool, having competed at three World Championships in the meantime.
“I’m not as phased by the big stage as much as before,” he says. “I’ve just had a lot more racing under my belt.”
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 24th on NBC.