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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 4 June, 2020

'When I hit the board, I thought it was about time the tricolour was raised above the podium'

Relief was the overriding emotion for Shane Ryan as he won bronze for Ireland in the pool this week, and he’s now hoping to push on towards Tokyo 2020.

SHANE RYAN HAS barely had a chance to sleep. Five days since his long, out-stretched left arm reached for the wall and grabbed a brilliant bronze for Ireland, and less than 24 hours since he completed his last event — the team relay — in Glasgow.

Whirlwind barely justifies Ryan’s championship week, but it was important for him to be here. Sleep or no sleep. Medal or no medal. He made it his business to be here on time, to fulfil the commitment.

“I came from a lot less than this,” he says.

NO FEE SWIM IRE SEAN MCDERMOTT POOL INVESTMENT JB3 Shane Ryan pictured with kids at the Sean McDermott Street pool.

It’s a big day for many people, not least the people of Dublin’s north-east inner city. The Sean McDermott Street swimming pool has been a long-standing piece of furniture in the area, but rarely has it seen days like this, and never has it been such a prominent part of the community.

A €250,000 regeneration of the facility has been needed for years, been months in the making, and has breathed new life into this part of the capital in a way sometimes sport only can. There is something to talk about, to get behind, to be proud of, to call their own. And all of that resonates with Ryan.

“I grew up in a really poor area in south-west Philadelphia,” he explains. “But I had swimming and to have something like this is brilliant for the kids here. You can see it in their reaction this morning. It’s a great facility.”

Ryan’s presence only adds to the sense of occasion, and the excitement is shared in equal measure between those who have worked so hard behind the scenes — tirelessly campaigning in the corridors of Dublin City Council — to make this day happen and the generations it will benefit.

Maybe one day Sean McDermott street will have an Olympian of their own, or a European bronze medallist. Or maybe everyone here will simply be able to look back on this day and smile and remember how it was the beginning of something new and positive for the area. And that means more than any number of medals.

“To be here working with the kids, to be taking photos and to share the day with them is an honour,” says Ryan.

“I didn’t have someone to really look up to when I was growing up swimming and sport can have such a positive impact on your life regardless of where or what you come from. I’m so glad I could do this.”

After arriving back into Dublin late on Thursday night with the rest of Team Ireland, Ryan’s stay here is a short one before he flies to America this morning for a bit of time off with his family. It’ll be the first time he has seen his Mum and Dad in a while and to bring a bronze medal back to them will be a particularly sweet moment.

Although he won gold in the 50 metres backstroke at the University Games last year, finishing on the podium in Glasgow last Sunday felt like the breakthrough moment Ryan’s career had been waiting for.

“It was relief more the anything,” the 24-year-old says of seeing the bronze medal flash up beside his name on the big screen. A weight off his shoulders, affirmation that he is doing something right. And moving in the right direction.

Shane Ryan Ryan finished third in last Sunday's 50m backstroke final. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

Just one length of the pool, Ryan knew he needed to produce his best to stand any chance in a race stacked with quality in lanes one to eight. His explosive semi-final performance earlier in the day had people talking, but there comes a point when medals become the only currency of success.

“That race was our best chance of winning a medal,” he admits. “Other people had taken notice of our performances earlier in the week but you need to get on that podium to back it up.”

And so he did. A strong start made all the difference, Ryan powering into contention over the first 25 metres, maintaining a consistent stroke to keep in touch with Russian Kliment Kolesnikov, who would smash the world record.

Kolesnikov snatched gold ahead of Romanian Robert-Andrei Glinta, but there was Ryan — easily identifiable in a black hat with the tricolour — in close quarters, finishing strongly to hold onto third place and claim Ireland’s first swimming medal at the European Championships in the six years.

And, in a flash, everything changes. A medal around your neck will do that. Years of hard work, of early starts, of late nights, of sacrifices justified. And then expectations and goals shift. You’re now Shane Ryan, the European bronze medallist. There are more eyes, more ears, more demands.

“It’s a great honour and achievement,” he continues. “But it was about time, honestly. When I was in the water and touched the board, I thought this is about time the tricolour flag got up there and raised above the podium. It wasn’t the first flag but it was a statement.

“I got the medal, I got my hand on the wall before the other swimmers behind me and it’s a great achievement. I’m just so happy that I have one and it’s not just me, but for the people who have supported me.”

Ryan will be able to properly celebrate with his parents and family back home in Pennsylvania over the next week as he takes a break from swimming, before returning to the pool ahead of a meet in Mexico in the first week of September.

The plan then is to return to Ireland and spend a couple of months here for an intense training block with his team-mates under the guidance of Swim Ireland performance director Jon Rudd and the national team coaches ahead of World Championship trials.

After declaring for Ireland through his Laois-born father before the 2016 Olympics, Ryan has become an integral member of the high performance unit, not just for the way in which he has led the medal chances, but the positive attitude he has brought.

Shane Ryan after winning bronze A podium finish: Ryan enjoyed his breakthrough moment in Glasgow. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

What was noticeable from any of his pre-meet media duties was an almost arrogant confidence in declaring that he, and the team, were in great shape and were targeting medals, which, on recent history, is a bold statement to make for an Irish team at a major championships.

But Ryan is an altogether more mature athlete now than he was two summers ago in Rio when he qualified for an Olympic semi-final, and his performances and that of his team-mates is a measure of their progress and development as swimmers.

Ryan was the only Irish representative on the medals board at the end of the week in Glasgow, but it was a meet which constituted Ireland’s most successful European Championships after a 50m backstroke bronze, three finals, 10 semi-finals, five Irish senior records and three Irish junior records .

“Coaches from other countries were coming up to us during the week and asking what our coaches are doing to make us perform so well,” Ryan says. “They want to know but obviously we’re not going to let our secret out.”

Key, however, has been a shift in philosophy under Rudd since his arrival in late 2016, with Ireland’s swimmers now going into each and every race with the belief and confidence they can win and get on the podium.

Ryan explains: “Every time I, or any of the team, swim, even if it’s a prelim or semi-final, we’re swimming as if it’s a final. The support that’s backing us — Sport Ireland, Swim Ireland and the coaches — you just feel unstoppable.

“You need to have confidence, you need to back yourself and need to believe in everything that everybody is putting into you. Because if you don’t believe in that, if you’re not fully confident, what’s the point in even swimming? You need to make sure you’re doing everything, that you can to prove yourself and if the team is doing well, you’re doing well.

“I’ve noticed a big, big difference in the last two years. As soon as I came into here, so many kids I train with wouldn’t even talk during practice or cheer people on, and I brought it into it the system and the younger kids are starting to believe in themselves more.

“I’m not trying to be arrogant or anything like that, but it’s just the mentality I had. I’m a very positive guy, there’s not a lot of things that annoy me or bring me down. I take everything with a good attitude, I enjoy what I do and if I enjoy what I do, I’m happy.

Shane Ryan before the race Ryan has become the poster boy for Irish swimming. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

“I just try to improve myself first but want to help everyone else, try to improve them. It’s really good that now everyone is so confident in what they’re doing and it’s so good. Irish swimming is in a good place at the minute.”

Ryan has become the poster boy, and at this stage, certainly leads the Irish prospects for Tokyo 2020 having taken on board the lessons from Rio and applied them to his training and everyday lifestyle.

A lot of that naturally comes with age but as his performances and results graph has shot upwards in the last 12 months, there is now no reason why he can’t go to his second Games and make a real impression on the biggest stage of all.

“When I lived in Dublin for two years before Rio, it was tough,” he recalls. “I had just moved here and was living with Oliver Dingley in Abbotstown. I only had a bike for transportation for nearly two years and riding my bike at 4am in the morning in the pitch black and rain wasn’t fun.

“It was challenging to do but I’d definitely do it 10 times over because I’m an Olympian, I have the Olympic rings on my ribs now because I worked for that and I sacrificed for that.

“I’m glad it worked out and I was an Olympic semi-finalist but now I’m going to be a finalist and an Olympic medallist in Tokyo. You have to believe that, be confident in what you’re doing.

“I’ve finished college now (a degree in Event Management from Penn State University) and it’s an amazing opportunity for me. The coaches here are just so good, they believe in you and they’ve done an amazing job. It’s an exciting time.”

For now, however, Ryan is looking forward to the break. Some of his family from Portalington — the Murphys — are currently visiting America so big celebrations are expected in the coming days as the European bronze medallist returns home stateside.

“It’s hard on my parents, as I only see them a couple of times a year,” he adds. “But winning this medal isn’t just me, it’s the dozens of people behind me. My parents understand and I’m lucky they are happy for me to pursue my dreams in Ireland.

“I started out in a pool like this. Actually nowhere near a facility like this. But I had people behind me who believed and encouraged me. If you have that, like these kids have here today, you can do anything.”

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Ryan Bailey

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