Caroline Ryan has Rio in her sights
Having pedalled to a medal at the elite World Track Cycling Championships, an Irish first in over 100 years, the Kildare star is Targeting the Olympics, writes Alison O'Riordan
With a father and an uncle who had competed for Ireland at two Olympic Games, it was only natural that Caroline Ryan would become an international rower.
But what went against the grain was the Kildare girl turning her hand to cycling after excelling as a rower.
"There are strong sporting genes in the family," Caroline says. "My father Willie Ryan and uncle Ted Ryan competed for Ireland at two Olympic Games. Having a dad and an uncle who were great athletes inspires me to believe in myself and to keep striving for more."
The oarswoman started rowing in 1997 with Neptune Rowing Club. In 2002 she joined An Garda Síochána and rowed in the single scull for the boat club until 2008.
Being selected to represent Ireland in rowing from 2005 to 2008 was no mean feat. Unfortunately, the 34-year-old missed out on selection for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but that same year she won the Princess Royal Challenge Cup, becoming the first Irish woman to do so.
"Training involved a lot of work on the lakes in Blessington as well as weight training in the gym," she says. Most days, we trained two sessions a day."
At the end of the 2008 rowing season Caroline heard about the Talent Transfer Programme that Cycling Ireland ran after the Olympics and decided to test out for it.
"After testing I was invited on the programme and very quickly I was training on world-class indoor tracks – I was hooked," she says.
"I had a conversation with my cycling coach who believed that I had what it took to become world class. They asked me to commit to the plan for six months to give it a proper chance. I haven't looked back since.
"I loved rowing and have great memories, but trying to do both would never have worked."
Joining the fast-track programme meant the sports prodigy had little time to learn the ropes. "I was thrown in at the deep end so I had to learn quickly," Caroline says.
While track is her number one focus, she also rides on road: "Eighty per cent of my training is on the road, but I do all this training to compete internationally on the track." She is a member of the Irish High Performance Track and Road Cycling squad, which trains and races a lot overseas.
"We have a training base in Majorca and we train there during the winter months as we have no velodrome in Ireland," Caroline says. "We race all around the world during this period. In the summer we train and race more in Ireland."
Training at home involves 15-20 hours a week of pain and sweat for the full-time athlete who stands at 5ft 9in (175cm) in height. "It varies depending on the stage of the season," she says. "When I'm away on training camp, I train on the road in the morning for three hours and then for two hours in the afternoon on the track."
Just as the rider's training changes throughout the season, so too does her diet. But she does allow herself the occasional treat: "I'm pretty disciplined but there are other times in the year, like when the world championships are over, and the pressure comes off and I can eat more of what I want.
"I have plenty of moments where on one side of my shoulders there's the pudgy little devil egging me on, and on the other side, a slim little angel giving my hand a slap to stop me from reaching for that chocolate bar."
Having established herself as an ideal candidate for the transfer programme and showing lots of early promise, Caroline was used as a pilot on the Irish paracycling team on a tandem with teammate Catherine Walsh. In their first race together, they won a silver medal at a world cup and went on to win silver at the Paracycling Track World Championships that year.
In July 2011, Caroline decided to take a career break from An Garda Síochána. "It was a hard decision to make at the time, but it was the only option for me to move forward with my training and improve as a cyclist," she says.
Despite her late transition into cycling, April 2012 marked her and Ireland's first UCI Elite World Championship Track medal, with a bronze in the points race in Melbourne. It was Ireland's first medal at a senior track cycling world championship since Harry Reynolds took bronze in 1897.
"The points race can be a bit confusing to follow," Caroline says. "It's a mass start race usually held over 120 laps for women and can take around 40 minutes. A sprint is held every 10 laps, with five, three, two, and one points being awarded to the top four finishers in each sprint. The winner of the race is the one who has the most points at the end. It's an exciting race to watch and to take part in."
The bronze medal qualified Caroline for Irish Sports Council funding the following year, so she was able to apply for another one-year career break for 2013.
This year at the World Cup in Aguascalientes in Mexico, the Kildare native raced the 3k individual pursuit and won a bronze while posting her fastest time ever.
"Because it's a timed event and it was my first medal at a world cup, I was so proud standing up on the podium," she says. "I have the medal hanging up in my room, so on the tough days it's a reminder of what I'm working so hard for."
Caroline has also won the Irish Elite Time Trial title twice, in 2011 and 2013. It takes place in June each year with the National Road Race Championships days later.
"The individual time trial is a race where a rider races on their own against the clock," she says. "It's called the race of truth because it's all down to the individual rider's strength and endurance."
When the 2014 Giro d'Italia, one of the world's largest annual sporting events, began in Belfast and Dublin last month, cycling fever was at an all-time high.
The Grand Tour saw the world's best cyclists race 187k from Armagh to Dublin on May 11, and in Caroline's eyes it offered a fantastic opportunity for people to experience the carnival-like atmosphere of the spectacle.
"The Giro coming to Ireland was a huge honour and really great for cycling in Ireland and for Ireland as a country. It will definitely get more people out on bikes and, because people all around the world have watched it on TV, it will attract a lot more tourists."
For the remainder of 2014, Caroline is hoping to build on where she left off last year and keep challenging for medals on the track.
"This year is the start of the competition for Olympic qualification points," she says. I will need to race to my best to secure enough points for the Olympic Games in Brazil, and go on to be competitive."
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