'My first Olympics was absolutely amazing, but this has to be the one'

After winning European bronze last summer, Shane Ryan is focused on making his mark on the Olympic stage in Tokyo.

THE TATTOO JUST above his ribcage will always remind Shane Ryan of his first Olympic Games, and the experience of reaching a semi-final in Rio, but the Irish swimmer is focused on ensuring Tokyo 2020 will define his career.

With just over a year left in this Olympic cycle, Ryan’s preparations will hit an important marker this summer when he competes at the World Championships in South Korea in the 100-metre backstroke. 

JDDE0627 European bronze medallist Shane Ryan. Sportsfile Sportsfile

The 25-year-old, who last month broke the national record at the Irish Open championships, has become Ireland’s leading medal prospect in the pool for Tokyo having consistently produced world-class performances.

Rio was a huge learning experience for Ryan, and indeed an indelible experience, but he is an altogether different athlete — and person — now as he grows in stature and confidence with each passing meet.

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. That’s the plan anyway.

Winning European bronze over 50-metre backstroke in Glasgow last August was a significant moment for Ryan as he secured his first medal at a major championships and the hope now is that he can use that as a springboard going into a huge 15-month period leading up to Tokyo.

Having completed his studies in America, the Philadelphia native — who qualified for Ireland before Rio through his Laois-born father — has relocated to Dublin to train full-time at the National Aquatic Centre and Sport Ireland Institute.

“I can now fully concentrate on swimming,” he tells The42. “I’ve been here full-time 12 weeks now and it has been really good. There’s a whole different atmosphere and it’s a whole lot more enjoyable now. I have a different mindset about swimming.”

Under the tutelage of Swim Ireland performance director Jon Rudd, Ryan has become an integral member of the high-performance unit but the exciting progress is not exclusive to him, with the likes of Mona McSharry, Darragh Greene and Jordan Sloan all developing into top prospects.

“It is a really good environment now,” Ryan, who is on Sport Ireland’s ‘world class’ funding of €20,000, continues. “The swimmers are getting what we need and when we need it, which is absolutely amazing. Swim Ireland are working hard with us to get the little things we need to get done.

It’s a totally different environment and attitude leading up towards this Olympics here now. People are savvy and hungry to achieve success and we’re all working together and for each other.

While Tokyo is the big goal on the horizon, the short-term focus is on the World Championships in Gwangju this July, with that meet providing Ryan with another chance to lay down a marker against his main rivals on the big stage.

Not only did Ryan take the Irish title and new senior record in March but he clocked his fastest time over two lengths in six years, meaning he is in good form heading to South Korea.

Much of that is down to the mindset and philosophy implemented by Rudd, with Ryan — and indeed the rest of the senior team — now going into every race with absolute confidence they can compete and win, but also a growing appreciation of what it takes to be a world-class athlete. He is now a far more mature swimmer than three years ago in Rio.

“Once I leave the pool, I leave the pool,” he explains. “That’s the big thing for me, I have to have a life outside swimming as well so I can enjoy it more. This is the first time in my life I’m enjoying going to training, and working hard. I leave it at the pool. 

Shane Ryan Ryan has already qualified for this summer's World Championships. Andrea Staccioli / INPHO Andrea Staccioli / INPHO / INPHO

“When I go home, I forget about swimming. I’ll watch movies, just go out and play different sports or play golf with my uncle in Portarlington at the weekend.

“I’ve found it so useful to just take my mind off it.” 

While there has been a noticeable shift in attitude, Ryan’s body and swimming style has completely changed too. An intensive weights programme has seen the European bronze medallist add over 10kg to his frame this Olympic cycle, going from 86kg to 97kg, and that in turn has helped him clock faster times.

“My body is completely different, my mind is completely different,” he says. “Everything is going in the right direction. I’m getting faster.

The worlds are going to be fun. I swam my best time a few weeks ago and now the sky is the limit. I feel I have so much more to offer. Now I just need to get comfortable with that and try and get on the podium again.

“I’m just striving for more, always hungry. Making sure I’m putting myself in uncomfortable positions in and out of the water so I can be comfortable in the pool.”

Focused, determined and making encouraging progress, Tokyo 2020 is when Ryan — who will be 26 at his second Games — is planning to peak and hit top form. 

“This has to be the one,” he adds. “It is going to be an amazing ride, I’m having fun with it already. All the pieces of the puzzle are going to fall in line and they’re going to make one masterpiece, they really well. Because I’m doing everything right, I’m heading in the right direction. I just have to make sure I keep the head down.

“The first Olympics was absolutely amazing, I was starstruck about everything. But I’ve been there and done that, now going to Tokyo it’s just having this mentality. It’s another meet, I’ve another lane, I’ve another race, I’ve another opportunity to beat people. I want to get my hand on the wall before everyone else so I can see that tricolour raised at the Olympics.

“I’m just hungry.”

460 days and counting.

Circle K has announced its support of Team Ireland in a new two-year agreement which will see the company become the Official Fuel and Convenience Partner to the Irish Olympic Team in their qualification journey and participation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to preview the Champions Cup semi-finals and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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