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Ryan happy to be back in the water after family's Covid battle in States

‘I had to sit here by myself, worrying my butt off about them making it through, that they were okay.’

Shane Ryan at the announcement of the continuation of Circle K’s ‘Here for Ireland’ initiative today. Customers can scan the Circle K app or Play or Park loyalty tag in-store to generate digital coins, which Team Ireland athletes can use to fuel their journey to Tokyo.
Shane Ryan at the announcement of the continuation of Circle K’s ‘Here for Ireland’ initiative today. Customers can scan the Circle K app or Play or Park loyalty tag in-store to generate digital coins, which Team Ireland athletes can use to fuel their journey to Tokyo.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Updated Jul 24th 2020, 8:35 AM

THERE HAS DOUBTLESS been plenty of monotony to endure over the past four months for aspiring Irish Olympians as well as those athletes who had already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics before it was pushed back a full year.

But in retrospect, Shane Ryan might have perceived such boredom to be a luxury as he quarantined in total isolation through to June when the Irish swimming made their return to the pool.

Instead, the 2018 European bronze medalist was forced to contend with a nightmare scenario in which both of his parents back in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as his sister at Syracuse University, New York, contracted Covid-19 while he was holed up across the Atlantic in his adopted home of Tyrrelstown, Dublin 15.

There, Ryan experienced no direct human contact for three months. Yet, amid the frequent check-ins with his affected loved ones, the gnawing, perpetual worry, and the lack of team training, he emerged from lockdown having tacked on two kilos of muscle mass and retaining only 10% body fat — a feat which he describes with a laugh as “pretty strange”.

circle-ks-here-for-ireland-campaign-launch Rio 2016 Olympian Shane Ryan. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

And he can afford a chuckle, now, with his family back in America having nursed themselves back to health following a ropey few weeks.

“It was like, ‘Are you kidding me? What the hell?” Ryan says of the moment he found out his parents had fallen ill. “It was wild. I was like, ‘Make sure you stay hydrated, don’t go outside’ — I was freaking out; I wanted to take care of them, and I took care of them as well as I could from over here. They’re very strong-willed, they stayed away from everything.

“It took them about three and a half weeks to recover, both of them. My sister, she got like the actual flu in January. She got the coronavirus, then, and she was like, ‘This is different’. She lost her taste and smell. It was just awful, they said. But they’re doing really, really well now.

“My mom is donating blood now just to help out with the corona patients any way she can because she tested positive. It was good that, during Christmas time, they got a puppy — and that kept them occupied as well.

“I could have gone back to the States but I knew it was going to get bad over there,” Ryan explains. “But I wanted to stay there: I’m comfortable here.

Yes, I won’t be able to go and see my family for probably a year but this is my home now. I had to sit here by myself, worrying my butt off about them making it through, that they were okay.

“It was very difficult but we (the Irish swimming team) got on to a schedule, as normal as we could, doing Zoom calls for exercise, weightlifting and jumping on a bike, so I was happy to stay here just in case there was an opportunity to get back into the water — that I was in the right atmosphere and with the right coaches to put myself in a better position for when the time came.”

circle-ks-here-for-ireland-campaign-launch Ryan returned to the pool just under two months ago after an enforced, career-long absence. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

That time came some seven weeks ago and Ryan, who qualifies to swim for Ireland through his Laois-born father, and whose Tyrrelstown home is only a couple of minutes from the National Aquatic Center, can scarcely hide his enthusiasm at being back home-home:

“We really are blessed to be back in the water,” he says.

Swimming is my baby – that’s what I’m good at — and I was out of the water for like three full months. It’s the longest I have ever been out of the water in my entire life. It was very, very challenging.

“The thing is, I made sure I stayed on my routine: waking up at eight o’clock in the morning, getting a session in, doing two practices a day, focusing on other issues.

“It was a great opportunity to focus on the mental side of things and being prepared for anything — because you have to be prepared for anything.”

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Including, perhaps, the prospect of there being no Olympics at all.

This month, two separate polls taken in Japan have shown that the majority of its people believe the rescheduled Games in 2021 should be pushed further down the road or indeed cancelled altogether. There is little confidence in the host city, or indeed the host nation, that the virus can be contained over the next 12 months to the extent that it would be prudent to proceed with world sport’s greatest meeting of nations.

circle-ks-here-for-ireland-campaign-launch Ready to go. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Ryan, though, a 2016 Irish Olympian, has learned the hard way that to be a world-class athlete requires a high tolerance for disastrous events, be they global or somewhat more local.

“Being an Olympic athlete, you have to be ready to go for anything,” says the Penn State graduate.

I’ve had situations where my suit has ripped or my goggles have snapped or filled up with water. You just have to deal with it, you know? You have to be sure that you’re going to be in the best condition that you can be for when the opportunity presents itself — and with something like the Olympics being cancelled, it’s not only you in that situation; it’s everyone else as well.

“You still have to wake up, work hard, use everything you can.”

Is there any frustration that, were it not for Covid-19, he might be in Tokyo right now enjoying the opening week of the Olympics?

“No, because we’re not there”, he laughs. Indeed, having had time to mull it over, Ryan feels quite the opposite of frustration.

“I still have a plan to go to Tokyo and I’ll go when the Olympics happens. Mentally, it’s another year to get better, to capitalise on things that you were weaker on beforehand… It would be great to be in Tokyo, but best thing for everyone, the best thing for the world, is not to be there right now.

“I think it’s a great opportunity — it really is. We (Ireland) have a handful of kids who are 18 going on 19, or 19 going on 20, and that’s a significant time to improve in strength — and just, like, mental awareness and everything like that.

“I think it’s really beneficial for Ireland. [By 2021] it’ll be four years that John Rudd (director) and Ben Higson (head coach) have been here, so that gives them a whole Olympic cycle, now. It also gives them another year to kind of see what happened in the past three, four years — what worked and what didn’t work — and really capitalise on the things that did work.”

The government’s travel green list means that the 26-year-old and a number of his Irish peers can return to competition at the Italian open championships next month, while Ryan is also looking forward to soon representing a professional outfit, the Toronto Titans for whom he has recently signed, in the International Swimming League.

Medium-term plans remain shrouded in uncertainty as they do for us all, but Ryan will be ready to roll with the tide whichever way it turns over the next 12 months.

Through the ‘Here for Ireland’ initiative, Circle K customers can show their support for Team Ireland athletes as they strive to achieve Olympic and Paralympic glory in Tokyo next year, by simply scanning either the Circle K app or their Play or Park loyalty tag in-store. In so doing, they will automatically generate digital coins, which Team Ireland athletes can then use to fuel their journey to Tokyo.

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