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'Sure I have an American accent, but I'm all Irish blood. I'm Irish and I'll believe that right until the day I die'

Swimmer Shane Ryan reflects on winning Ireland’s first ever World Swimming Championships medal.

Shane Ryan pictured with his 50m backstroke bronze medal.
Shane Ryan pictured with his 50m backstroke bronze medal.
Image: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

SHANE RYAN SHOULD be shouting from the rooftops about his latest success in China a week ago, where he made history by securing Ireland’s first ever World Championship swimming medal and also set a new Irish record in the 100m freestyle event.

His performances for Swim Ireland have brought the curtain down on a successful 2018 in style, but speaking from his training base in Virginia Tech on the other side of the globe the 24-year-old is adamant that he can still do better.

Going into his FINA World Swimming Championships semi-final in the 100m freestyle event, Ryan was powering through with just two hours sleep in the tank. A four hour drive from Virginia to Washington DC was followed by a 16 hour long-haul flight to Hong Kong, before a five hour layover and another two and a half hour journey saw him eventually arrive in Hangzhou.

He was shattered, he says, with the jet lag and air-miles taking a serious toll on his body clock. A combination of “buzz, adrenaline and caffeine” got him through the championships, but he says that with the right preparations and steps taken in the future he can achieve even greater heights than last week in China.

Shane Ryan with Simone Sabbioni after the race Ryan with Italy's Simone Sabbioni after the Men's 50m Backstroke Final at the FINA World Swimming Championships. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

Ryan was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but switched allegiances from the USA to compete for Swim Ireland three years ago in 2015.

Since then he has competed in the Rio Games under the tricolour, becoming the first Irish swimmer to reach an Olympic semi-final since 2008 and just last September brought home a gold medal in the 50m backstroke final at the University Games, Ireland’s first in 26 years.

In August he won 50m backstroke bronze at the European Championships in Glasgow, with last week’s opportunity to add a World Championship bronze a special moment for him and his family back home in Portarlington, where his father was born and also in Mayo, where his mother hails from.

“It was definitely an honour for me to win the bronze medal and I knew I could definitely do a lot of damage in the 50m backstroke because I was training short-course yards over here in the States and was dropping really quick times in practice,” he explains.

Shane Ryan after qualifying for the final Last week the 24-year-old won Ireland's first ever World Swimming Championships medal. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

“I had some meets in Ireland too and was swimming really fast, so I knew I could do really well, and I’m happy that I did because it goes to show that everything I was doing has been working. Not only did I break the Irish record in the morning, but I broke it again in the semi-finals and was even faster in the final.

“That final swim was the ninth fastest time ever swam in the history of the 50m backstroke, so that was a really, really big improvement for me. I got to raise the Irish flag and some of the people there were just like ‘huh, Ireland?’

“They were quite surprised that we have really strong swimmers, so we were getting a lot of good focus. It’s about time that people recognise that Ireland are on the rise.”

Though he won’t admit it, instead heaping praise on his Swim Ireland team-mates, Ryan has become a leading poster-boy for the organisation over the course of the last three years, not only delivering success but helping to instil a new mentality and a belief that Ireland can achieve and deliver on its potential in the pool on the world stage.

“Being a professional athlete you have to be very, very selfish,” Ryan says. “But being an athlete on behalf of a country there is a national duty there. You’re doing it for yourself, but also for your coaches and your team-mates.

“If you think about it, the more people give you that sense of support, the more motivated you are going to be. Each stroke for me coming home, I’m like: ‘come on, come on, get your hand on the wall! hand on the wall! let me see the medal, let me get that medal’.

“Going into the 50m backstroke final I knew I could do it, because I had the support of Ireland and of my friends and my family. So for me, to get that medal, it just goes to show that what they were putting in for me was worth it, to repay them.”

Shane Ryan signs autographs Ryan won gold for Ireland in the 50m backstroke at the University Games in Taiwan in September 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

His time of 22.76 set a new Irish record in the 50m backstroke. He also broke this country’s record for the 100m freestyle event with 46.93, on top of that helping Swim Ireland break the record for the 4x100m relay alongside Brendan Hyland, Conor Ferguson and Darragh Greene with 3:27.23 in Hangzhou (18 seconds better than the previous record set in 1991).

Ryan has spoken at length about his Irish heritage in the past and is more than happy to do so again. His dad Thomas was born and reared in Laois and first came to the US playing GAA, making it his home shortly thereafter, while his mother is also an avid fan of gaelic and a former Miss Mayo winner.

He switched home twice in 2018 and is currently based out in Christiansburg, Virginia, where he is working alongside highly-rated coach Sergio Lopez at the university’s swimming department.

A graduate of Penn State, Ryan received his degree in Event Management last year and is currently working for a company called “Fitter and Faster”, who deliver swim clinics to young kids hopeful of following in the Olympian’s footsteps.

Growing up in a poor district of south-west Philadelphia, Ryan explains that the job is an immensely rewarding one because of his own experience of not having someone to look up to for inspiration as a young swimmer.

“I travel all around on weekends to teach kids how to swim,” he says. “I’m lucky because it’s a job that lets me be that figure that I didn’t really have growing up. I travel around and have taught maybe around 1,000 kids in the past year and I enjoy doing it because I see an improvement in what they do.

“They get feedback, and the kids absolutely love it and they get excited about swimming too. And that’s something that I want to try and bring over to Ireland, that mentality. I want to go around to Sligo and to Limerick and to Galway, to Cork, to go all over Ireland and do these swim clinics.

“I’m in the water for eight hours between two different sessions and you’re there with the kids the whole time teaching them one-on-one. If it’s a three-hour session and there’s 50 kids I’m making sure that I get to each and every kid, get to know each of their names and get to know how they swim so I can try and teach them those little details.

Shane Ryan celebrates winning with the Irish athletes and staff The Pennsylvania-born swimmer has represented Ireland since 2015 with his parents born in Laois and Mayo. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“For me, that accomplishes something that I didn’t have growing up. Today the pool I grew up in is completely bulldozed, overrun. There was no money involved with it. The pool back when I was growing up was just this old, dusty dungeon, so it’s good that I can give back in that way. I want to give these kids something that they can remember, to think ‘wow, I swam with an Olympian, maybe I can be one too’”.

Ryan enjoys nothing more than returning home to the Emerald Isle. His dad is the only member of his family currently living outside of Ireland and he relishes the opportunity to head back to Portarlington and spend time with his cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and grandparents. Getting the chance to bring home a World Championship medal will be a great feeling of family pride, he says.

“It really will be the perfect Christmas present. My dad is the only one out of ten members of my family living in the United States right now, the rest are over in Portarlington. My mom’s family is all from Mayo too, so we have a big Irish family and I’m sure they will all be really happy that I bring home that medal. It’s really heavy,” he laughs. “It’s the heaviest medal I’ve gotten so far.”

Ryan received some criticism a few years ago when he made the decision to switch allegiances and represent Swim Ireland, but he has been unapologetic about his choice and ardently stresses that he is sincerely proud to swim for the country where his mother and father were both born and raised.

“I had no problem whatsoever transferring and I have no doubts about going from being on the US national team to being on the Irish national team. For me I’m Irish, I’m Irish-American. Sure I have an American accent but I’m all Irish blood and I take that to heart.

“Some people might be put off a bit by my accent, but I’m 100% Irish and consider myself being from this country because I was raised in an Irish culture. I mean, I know more Irish history than my cousins from Laois,” he laughs.

“I believe that I’m Irish and I’ll believe that right until the day I die. The public support that I receive makes me feel really good because it just goes to show that people do care and that they care about what Swim Ireland is doing.

“When I got to Swim Ireland, during practice I saw kids just going through the motions, not really cheering each other on. But I came in and maybe brought a bit more of an attitude. Trying a little bit to be uplifting and you could see it was slowly starting to get better and better, because the competitiveness was increasing.

Shane Ryan before the race The 24-year-old won 50m backstroke bronze at the LEN European Swimming Championships in Glasgow. Source: Andrea Staccioli/INPHO

“Walking around with confidence and telling people what you need, instead of just going through the motions makes such a big difference. And now with the backing of the public and the support of Swim Ireland it’s showing results.

“It’s not only just me, it’s Brendan Hyland, Darragh Greene, Niamh Coyne, Mona McSharry, they are all swimming so fast because of the backing we all receive because that support gives us confidence. Having the public behind us, one, gives us confidence, and two, gives us a duty that we have to perform for them in order to make them happy.”

With University Games gold, European bronze, a World Championship bronze and a host of Irish records smashed over the course of the last two years since Rio, Ryan is on course ahead of his dream to fly to Tokyo and represent Ireland at the 2020 Olympic Games.

But looking ahead to 2019 after an immensely fruitful and successful season this year, the 24-year-old says that maintaining a happy lifestyle away from the pool is just as crucial as any other facet of his preparation.

Too often people just see the athlete in the pool or in training, he says, but for him trying to enjoy life and pursue other hobbies is absoutely crucial to his mental well-being, which in turn will translate into success in the pool.

“You have to realise that next year is not all about training, training, training, training,” he explains. “It’s about having a good, healthy lifestyle as well. Doing things outside of the pool, taking your mind off of that and having that mentality of eating the right way but also going out and living your life.

“Like when I go home to Ireland, I’ll go down to Portarlington every weekend to spend time with my family. I’ll go down to this golf club in Garryhinch and play a round of 18 with my cousins, just to take my mind off everything. And that’s what I really like about our sport. It’s so demanding and we follow a black line, but you have to enjoy your life outside it too.

“That’s why, for me, I learned this year about having that heathy lifestyle and doing things I enjoy. I love going playing golf and my cousin Wayne goes down to Mondello drifting.

“When I get home, I’ll go down to Mondello and enjoy doing that with him, and in the pool and in training I’m 100 per cent focussed on achieving success and getting better each and every time. Every and every day is preparing for Tokyo.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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