Sunday 22 September 2019

'I had a problem and I wasn’t dealing with it' - man (27) who lost 90 per cent of his sight in one year

Peter Ryan is a Paralympian.
Peter Ryan is a Paralympian.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Peter Ryan is 90 per cent blind. If you passed him on the street however, you might never know. Only on occasion does he walk with a cane, and he doesn’t use a guide dog. He's also an elite athlete.

The Tipperary man lost his central vision seven years ago - all in the space of one year. So it’s incredible that he would describe the last four years as “the best years of his life”.

“Before I lost my sight, life came easy, and the knock on effect of that is you don’t appreciate how good life is. But everything I do now, I have to work that little bit harder and I have a completely heightened sense of appreciation for it.”

“You grow so much in confidence from doing something. You wouldn’t even recognise me as the same person. I work my eye sight way harder now.”

“My life is perfect, potentially better, which is an outrageous thing to say.”

Peter (27) is a Paralympian, training six days a week for his next goal which is to win a world championship medal next year in cycling.

Up until 2010, hurling was Peter’s passion and he played at inter-county level. But when he began to make mistakes during games and miss balls, he thought he might need contact lenses.

The situation was much more serious, however. His optician spotted something in his eye and sent him straight to Waterford A&E. The next few months were mentally harrowing as he underwent numerous tests.

Peter Ryan and his pilot on a tandem bike.
Peter Ryan and his pilot on a tandem bike.

Ultimately, Peter was diagnosed with Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a rare genetic form of vision loss that robbed him completely of his central vision. All that remains is limited peripheral vision.

“I lived a perfectly normal life, if you could call it normal,” he recalls.

“My first eye test was in March, and by October or November of that year I was 85 to 90pc blind.”

Peter sank low and started drinking to cover up how he really felt about his blindness.

“The next couple of years were hard. You’re literally being stripped of your independence, like the car or smaller things like walking down town or making a cup of tea, you need help at times. You don’t know how you’re going to adapt when you’ve had full sight up until your twenties.”

“I had absolutely zero acceptance for the first few years. My life was a tug of war, I was looking back to what I had, and wanting it back again.”

“I was happy-go-lucky, with the hurling and soccer teams. I was looking back to all the things that I wanted to get back, and looking forward to all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t. I had no contentment.”

“I had a problem and I wasn’t dealing with it, and I was drinking on it.”

Eventually, he agreed to spend time at a treatment centre to bring his drinking under control.

And things started to change for Peter in 2012. He took a trip to UCD for a Paralympics open day in October, where he was attracted to the sport of cycling.

He was put on a fast-track programme for coaching in January 2013 and just six months later, he was national para-cycling champion in the 40-kilometre time trial.

He finished eighth at the World Championships in 2015 and competed in the road race and time trial in the Rio Paralympic Games last year.

His ambitions are now set on the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020 with qualifiers starting in January.

“You learn to adapt to any situation.”

“I got back into sport when I thought I could never do that. I have had the best four years I’ve ever had. Through the Paralympic squad, I went to the Olympic Games. Once upon a time I didn’t think I could get on a train to Heuston.”

“I’m travelling the world doing motivational talks and trying to help people not make the same mistakes. “

Peter, who runs, does motivational talks for companies and schools to fund his cycling for himself and his pilot.

“I’m training six days a week. The track World Championships are coming up on March 18, and the road World Championships are in August next summer.”

“I’m an athlete that went blind, rather than a blind athlete. It’s the elite lifestyle, including what time you go to bed at. I can’t go out with the lads,” he says.

Peter and his pilot Sean are both carded athletes and receive some funding from Sport Ireland. Otherwise, Peter uses the money he earns from motivational speaking to fund their trips to games.

“I’ve set myself goals of getting to a Paralympic games, and goals of winning world champ and Paralympic medals. I look back and see that I wasn’t putting myself out there as an able bodied.”

“In a lot of ways, I have a better life.

“I’m working through the Institute of Sport through which we get coaches, physios, sports psychologists, the Paralympic team is well looked after but it has to grow.”

“We’ve about three events a year, and I’ll probably have to go to more than that. I have the additional cost of a pilot as well - we have two people on one bike.”

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