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Consider this fair warning: Do not underestimate Tim Murray. Do not be misled by his easy smile and affable personality. He is a nice guy—a natural extension of his northern Kentucky upbringing and his professional training as a rehabilitation specialist and strength trainer. His personality is critical to his interactions with other athletes, particularly when treating a dislocated shoulder, knee injury or torn ACL.
Furthermore, do not mistake his 4-foot, 5-inch height as a disadvantage, or worse, a disability. He’s never thought of it that way.
What is critical to know, especially if you plan to face him in some game or competition, is that alongside his friendliness and candor is a fierce and dogged competitive drive.
This drive earned him 11 straight gold medals in shot put between 2002 and 2013 at the national games of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. He has matched those statistics in world competition. In the 2009 World Dwarf Games, held in Belfast, Ireland, Murray set a world record for his category of athlete with a bench press of 286 pounds.
In addition to his prized collection of finishes in shot put, Murray has earned numerous silver and bronze finishes in DAAA competition for discus, javelin and various team sports. Among his DAAA peers, Murray is recognized as a world-class athlete. He could well be among Kentucky’s most accomplished, successful and least-celebrated athletes.
Murray’s gold streak came to an unexpected end July 14, 2014, at the DAAA National Open in San Diego. Michael Pope, an emerging young talent from the United Kingdom, posted an upset and claimed gold in the shot put over Murray by a bare few inches. For the first time in more than a decade, Murray took home only silver … and bronze in discus, javelin and team boccia. By any account, it was still a successful haul. But being edged out of his expected gold only fired up Murray for a hoped-for rematch at the national games this July in St. Louis.
Murray called last year’s upset “a wake-up call.”
“I was concerned that I was becoming complacent. But I have a challenge now to get back into shape for 2015,” he said. These days, though, that’s getting harder for the 28-year-old athlete to do.
It was easier when he was in college at Eastern Kentucky University and while finishing his master’s degree in human development and leadership at Murray State. Murray had access to the campus exercise equipment and playing fields. Now, he works full time as a staff member in the rehabilitation department at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Cynthiana.
His workout time is during lunch breaks. He uses the hospital’s exercise equipment for strength training and the back parking lot to work on his form. He enjoys the support and encouragement of his fellow staff members, but when it comes to training, Murray is often alone.
“In everything he’s ever tried, Tim is very intense and focused,” said Mike Murray, Tim’s father. He is well acquainted with Tim’s competitive spirit. In fact, he has been proud to share in many of Tim’s successes through the DAAA as well as in the few disappointments. Perhaps the most intense of those came during the qualifying rounds of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Mike said.
To qualify in shot put, Tim needed a minimum throw of 10 feet. On his last throw, the initial measurement indicated that Tim had scored just beyond that mark.
“He was in the middle of celebrating a milestone when the judges announced they’d made an error. Tim was just an inch below 10 feet. The error magnified his disappointment worse,” Mike said. But to his son’s credit, it didn’t bring him down.
Mike recalled the day he and his wife, Donna, were informed by physicians that Tim would be a little person. It was soon after he was born. Tim’s form of dwarfism, achondroplasia, is the most common type of condition among little people. Typically, the signs are present at birth. Tim had a larger than average head, a thicker torso and limbs shorter than average size.
“A pediatrician examined Tim a day or so after he was born. This was in the day when people stayed a day or two in the hospital after a birth,” Mike Murray said. “The doctor informed us of the situation and explained that it would affect his physical development, but that his mental faculties would be normal.”
Understanding that the only effect of achondroplasia on Tim is that he would never be tall, the Murrays metaphorically shrugged their shoulders and raised him to be as physically active as they were. “Being a competitor is a trait that runs through my whole family,” Tim commented.
His father and brother both played baseball throughout their college years and continue to be active. Mike Murray coached football for 18 years at Amelia High School in Clermont County, Ohio. His sister is a distance runner with a fondness for “tough mudder” marathons, Tim said.
Tim was never discouraged from participating in sports. “The only thing my doctor said was ‘no football’ because of my skeletal frame. But believe me, I was no running back and had zero interest in being on the front line,” Tim said. “Other than that, though, I was involved in any sport that interested me.”
At Scott High in Kenton County, he played baseball and competed on the swim team. In none of those sports was he given special concessions. He played at the same level as his taller peers.
“I had to earn my way on the field the same as anyone else,” he said. By the time he became a freshman at Scott High, the novelty of Tim being a little person had long since worn away among his friends and teammates, who had known him all their lives. “My friends have no sympathy for me at all. When we played … Man, they did not hold back,” Murray said with a laugh that spoke volumes.
Murray was always aware there were going to be limits to his ability to compete.
“I wasn’t going to outrun many people. I have the will, but I don’t have the stride. My stature and my limbs will only take me so far competing against average-sized athletes,” he said candidly. “I consider it lucky that there is an active chapter of Little Persons of America (LPA) in Greater Cincinnati.” Though the DAAA and LPA are different organizations, the national games coincide with LPA annual conventions.
In the world of the dwarf athletics association, all ages and body types are given a chance to compete on a level playing field with their peers, Murray said.
“It’s only a gene thing, but children are already challenged daily with being different. Being able to compete and succeed in sports helps them accept and love who they are,” he said. “They don’t wish to be different. I know I don’t.”
The DAAA national open, which began in 1986, has become popular and the competition more intense as the number of athletes increases. Murray excels in individual events, but he’s also a team member in basketball, soccer and volleyball. The games last five days and are a rigorous test of an athlete’s stamina. In team events, the games are all played in a single day, Murray said. If a team gets to a medal game in soccer or basketball, for example, it usually has played five to six consecutive games in a stretch.
“It’s a real iron-man type competition. I am glad to see old friends, but by the end of nationals, I am wiped out,” Murray said.
Murray has found it gratifying to witness the national and world games grow larger with each succeeding year, and he hopes to still be a competitor “when the events start attracting major commercial sponsors, someday,” he said.
“Someday,” he repeated with a glimmer that showed his tongue was only partway in his cheek.