Crossing the pond and making a splash
US-born Shane Ryan is leading Ireland's Rio hopes after switching allegiance
You'd imagine that a blond six foot, six inch American swimmer used to living on a sprawling US college campus of 50,000 students would get bored and stick out like a sore thumb in a small town in Laois. You would be wrong.
It is two days since Shane Ryan (22), born and reared in West Philadelphia and formerly a member of USA's senior team, became eligible to represent Ireland. To switch allegiance, under international (FINA) rules, he has had to live in Ireland for a full year and sit out all international action in the interim.
That deadline finally passed on Friday and, having clinched the Olympic 100m backstroke qualifying time by clocking 53:93 in Bangor in March, Ryan is now good to go. He makes his Irish debut at the European Championships in London's Olympic pool tomorrow and considering the Irish record is 54:44 and his own PB is 53:84, some national records look imminent.
In crossing the pond to replace home-grown talent, especially on the Irish record books, he has caused a few ripples domestically, even though he says few have said it to his face.
"There was just like one person saying about records, there really hasn't been any negative feedback at all," he insists.
Ryan and Swim Ireland are simply following a path trodden by a wide range of Irish sports, and his roots are greener than most. In his father's home town of Portarlington, Ryan is truly a neighbour's child. Last weekend, as usual, he took the train down to his many aunts and uncles who love to spoil him with home-cooked meals. There's a rake of first-cousins there too, who challenge him on the local golf course or drag him off to Mondello Park to indulge their petrol-head passions.
His grandfather Paddy, who lived with his uncle Eamonn and aunt Colette, only passed away last Christmas.
Ryan distinctly remembers trips to visit his grandfather from early childhood: the smell of turf, being allowed put the coin in the meter when the TV would suddenly shut off during the racing and discovering, to his astonishment once, that there was a horse in the next-door neighbour's yard.
"It actually belonged to my dad's friend 'Chilly' Ward, who worked with horses," he laughs. "I was known as 'Bam Bam' (from the Flintstones) when I was younger because I was so active and always breaking things. I wasn't even five seconds in the house once, picked up a hurling stick and a rock and broke one of the shed windows."
Portarlington is a long way from West Philly but that's where his father Tom, one of 10 children, settled - and for the most Irish of reasons.
"He's a (building) contractor but went over originally to play Gaelic football and met my mom, who's from South West Philly, in a little bar," Ryan explains. "She's a Bonner, her mom and dad were from Mayo. She came over here to live for a year at one stage so I have lots of family over there too."
Their hyper-active eldest child played lots of sports, including Gaelic games - midfield for Drexel Hill Middle School - so life in Port is really not too strange to him.
"Where I'm from, they call it the 33rd county of Ireland because there's just so many Irish. My dad's there for 30 years but still hasn't lost his accent," he says.
Ask him was he a typical pool rat and Ryan exclaims: "God no! I'm more a late developer." He was a punter in American football, also excelled at volleyball and played lacrosse and Gaelic games, but his mother is a swim coach and at her behest he started taking swimming a bit more seriously when he was 17.
Scholarship offers followed and he settled for Penn State, an American football powerhouse which is also highly ranked in swimming. Once there his training load doubled and he quickly showed the benefits, dropping six seconds off his personal best in eight months and winning NCAA medals.
He was already a junior international but only competed at senior level for America once (in December 2013). He was fourth at the US Nationals in 2014 but in the shark-filled world of American 100m backstrokers he would not qualify for Rio unless he made top two at their Olympic trials - and two Americans (Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman) took gold and silver at London 2012.
"I had approached Swim Ireland (SI) a couple of years ago when I wasn't good enough, the idea (of transferring) came from me," Ryan says. "Peter Banks (high performance director at Swim Ireland) and my US coach Tim Murphy are very good friends so I had a contact there. My parents always supported me no matter where I wanted to go and I decided myself to go to Ireland. I figured why not?
"I was still 21 and, even if I didn't make the Olympics, Swim Ireland were giving me a great honour to swim for Ireland. I have family here, I feel I'm representing them as well and that gives me more of a connection here."
He hardly did it for the glamour. Since he arrived he's been sharing a house - the only residence on Sport Ireland's huge multi-sport campus in Abbotstown, near Blanchardstown - with Irish team-mates.
Four mornings a week he's up at 4.30, cycles the 1km to the pool for a 5.0 start, and most days it's train-home-sleep-eat and repeat from then until 7.0pm.
It is a spartan, suburban lifestyle, a world away from student life in Penn State; for light relief, the tourism management student has been doing some intern hours with the FAI, who are also based on campus. He has deferred the final year of his studies, only been home twice in the past year (including Christmas). In his absence, his brother Brendan has taken over his bedroom and little sister Tara has commandeered his beloved 2003 Chevy Trailblazer.
Ryan has also been challenged physically since moving over. Under US collegiate rules students are only allowed train 18 hours a week and most of that was in a short-course pool. Here he started on 25 hours at the National Aquatic Centre's 50m pool, a very different kind of training.
"In the States we do short-course and yards, so this is very different. Short-course is very much under water, long-course is way more swimming. The true swimmers really come out in long-course," he says.
His Olympic qualifying time in March ranks him 20th in the world at 100m, and he's ranked seventh at 50m; his commitment since arriving has been unwavering. He swam in 20 different races at the recent Irish Nationals where he also helped Larne teenager Conor Ferguson get within 0.05 seconds of the Olympic qualifying time. He will also play a key role this coming week in Ireland's bid to qualify a medley relay team for Rio.
In truth, the most glaringly un-Irish thing about Ryan, apart from his accent, is his candour. How does he hope to do in London?
"Definitely top three I think, if everything goes well. It's my first Europeans, I gotta make a statement!" he grins.
Sunday Indo Sport