Thursday 21 September 2017

Cycling: Freewheeling Ryan stays on right road

Rower, turned cyclist, Caroline Ryan is one step away from living her Olympic dream, writes Marie Crowe

When Caroline Ryan was a teenager her mother paid a visit to her school because she was worried about her daughter's lack of participation in PE. Ryan's teacher said she always had an excuse to get out of the class.



The Kildare native admits that at the time she had no interest in sport or exercise; she dabbled a bit in basketball and running but never more than a training session or two. Over a decade has passed since she was in secondary school and Ryan's attitude to sport couldn't be more different. Now she's a former international rower, has medalled on the world stage in cycling and is currently trying to qualify for the London Olympics.

Although Ryan's love of sport came later in life, she grew up in a home with its own sporting legacy. Her father Willie and his brother Ted are household names in the rowing world having represented Ireland at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.

"When I was younger I didn't realise that being an Olympian was such a big deal," says Ryan. "People often told me my Dad was a legend but I didn't really understand why. It was only when I started rowing that I understood the level of commitment and work it takes to get there."

Despite her family ties, Ryan began rowing almost accidentally. At 19, she moved from Kildare to Dublin. She attended a get-together for her father's old crew at the Garda Boat Club and mentioned that she'd love to try rowing. There was a member of the Neptune rowing club there and he said he'd take her on.

She started out doing eights and her team was very successful. Three years later, she joined the Gardaí and the Garda Boat Club and decided to focus on single sculling. Her father, along with her uncle Ted and Brendan Duane, took over her training and under their expert guidance she quickly started to achieve individual success.

In the space of a couple of years, Ryan won five national championships, made the Ireland team, rowed in the World Championships and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics. Although she was disappointed not to make Beijing, she knuckled down again and a few months later became the first Irish woman to win at the Henley Royal Regatta when she won the Princess Royal Challenge Cup.

After winning at Henley, she was more focused than ever on rowing. She trialled for the national team and had big hopes and plans for the future. In the off-season, she heard about the Cycling Ireland talent transfer and identification programme and even though she wasn't overly interested in the sport, she decided to try out for it.

The first trial went well and Ryan was called back and given a three-week programme to complete. She did well again and was invited to go on a training camp at the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland. Ryan had never seen a velodrome before and initially found it intimidating but, typical of her, she put her head down and got on with the task. Nothing is ever too tough or too challenging for the Kildare native.

Back then the individual pursuit was still an Olympic event but shortly after the camp it was pulled from the London Games so Ryan and the other cyclists decided to go down the team route. She was still planning on concentrating on rowing with cycling as a side interest. She didn't expect to take to cycling so quickly.

"I'd done a bit of cycling on rowing training camps but I didn't really like it," says Ryan. "I remember one particular camp in Cyprus, we spent a lot of time on the bikes, and I was way behind everybody, they were flying past me. At the time I was thinking why would anyone want to do this? I wasn't tuned in to how to hang onto the back of the group so I was spending a lot of time on my own on the road."

Under the guidance of paracycling coach Brian Nugent, Ryan was making steady progress on the bike. In order to find out how good she was, Nugent recommended that she concentrate fully on cycling for three months. That meant sacrificing her rowing dream but Ryan made the tough choice and decided to give cycling her all.

Her first breakthrough came when she was selected to be the pilot on the Irish Paracycling tandem team with Catherine Walsh. They got on great, worked well together and went on to to win a silver medal in the World Paracycling Championships in 2009.

After a year as a pilot, Ryan decided to concentrate on her own cycling. Ireland were planning on going down the team route but because of lack of funding it didn't work out so Ryan decided to concentrate on individual track cycling.

That year Ryan became national champion in the 3km individual pursuit and 10km scratch events. She went on to qualify for the World Championships in Holland where she secured a ninth-place finish and ended the year tenth in the world rankings.

Last July, Ryan decided to take a career break from the Gardaí so she could focus fully on her sporting career and as a result her cycling went from strength to strength.

"You can get to a certain level working," she explains. "But you will only get so much out of yourself. To get to the next level I had to go full-time. Taking a break from work was 100 per cent the difference for me."

It didn't take long for her decision to pay dividends. In Australia in April, she won a bronze medal in the women's points race at the track World Championships, Ireland's first track medal in over 100 years. But that achievement didn't come without sacrifice. Ryan's budget is limited, she paid her own way to Australia, she's on a small Sports Council grant, is sponsored by Bus éireann and Richie's Bike Shop but ultimately she just scrapes by. There is no track in Ireland so Ryan has to go abroad to train and the expense mounts up.

"It's been hard but it's been worth it. It's all about making it happen for yourself. If nothing else, I've had an amazing year."

But there is something else -- the Olympics. After the team plan didn't work out, it was too late for Ryan to try qualifying on the track so the road was her only option. Today she is racing in the Celtic Chrono in Belfast and then next week she has two races in Canada. Her goal is a top-five finish. If she gets that, she will follow in her father's footsteps and race at the Olympic Games. "I'm in the form of my life; all the dots are there I just need to join them up."

And with Ryan's work ethic and belief it's hard to picture her not being at London.

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