'The doctor told me my body was broken' - How All Ireland winner Conor Ryan's life was turned upside down
A routine blood test in 2016 changed everything for the Clare hurler
As 2013 dawned, Conor Ryan wrote down some goals in his diary. Fresh from winning an All-Ireland under 21 final, his main ambition was to establish himself in the Clare senior panel. He was obsessed with the game, and with being the best that he could be.
He was lucky to grow up in the parish of Cratloe, a place where sport was encouraged in school and where a thriving club made sure young players were coached and nurtured by people who had their best interests at heart.
Ryan was a late bloomer but he was always enthusiastic and dedicated. He was also a fast learner and when he went to the University of Limerick and was exposed to the lifestyle that inter-county players adopt, he realised that if he wanted to make it into a senior set-up, he too must prepare meticulously. He saw first hand how friends like Seán Collins, Liam Markham and Conor McGrath were making serious strides and he wanted to be like them.
That meant following a strength and conditioning programme, keeping a food diary, recovering and consistently practising his skills.
Clare - with Davy Fitzgerald at the helm - had a great set-up. It was extremely professional and the 21-year-old thrived.
"I was a sponge, I took everything so seriously," says Ryan. "I would never say too seriously because of what we achieved, but I did everything to the letter of the law. I played most of the league games but in the relegation game against Cork I was whipped after 20 minutes and for just a second I thought I'd blown my chance, but I kept my head down and my goal of making the championship panel in my head.
"On the Tuesday night before the Waterford game, Fitzy came to me and said, 'I'm going to name you midfield but I won't start you', and I thought, 'Ok, that's great, I'm on the panel'."
Ryan didn't get on that day but his championship debut came a couple of games later against Wexford when Clare needed extra-time to progress in Thurles. It was the game that really launched their attack on the All-Ireland title and for Ryan it was special as it was his first taste of high-level, intense hurling. The win secured Clare a spot in the last eight against Galway and it also led to Ryan cementing his place on the team.
"About 10 days before the Galway game, Fitzy rang me. He said we are thinking of doing something different, going with a sweeper, but we want you to be a centre-back. I didn't think too much of it and on the Friday we had an A versus B game and I was in. I was delighted, and then the following Tuesday he told me I was starting. I rang my dad first to tell him I was starting in a championship game and then I quickly realised this was an All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway and I had to get focused."
Clare scored a comprehensive victory and Ryan excelled in the role. He was the linchpin in the backs for the rest of that memorable championship. He had all the attributes needed to be a classic centre-back: power, pace, drive and an ability to read the game. He was 22 and had the hurling world at his feet.
After beating Limerick, Clare found themselves as improbable All-Ireland final contenders against Cork. In a dramatic final, a last-minute point from unlikely scorer Dómhnall O'Donovan sent the game to a replay, but it was Ryan who was the stand-out performer and he deservedly won the man of the match award.
"I caught a few balls and they are usually big plays and people remember big plays," he says. "It was a defensively-oriented game and I remember that it didn't start that well for me. I was nervous, not of the crowd but of the performance. It was a big game and I needed to play well. The first ball that came I was marking Seamus Harnedy and I remember a sideline ball came and I thought this is going to go over my head so I need to be ready for the break, but it went straight to Harnedy, he caught it and put it over the bar. Then the next ball came and I fouled it. I looked over at the sideline and I could see the lads looking at me thinking, 'Just get into the game', and I worked into it from there."
The replay was a more straightforward affair as Clare sealed their place in the history books with a six-point win. It was a magical Saturday night in Croke Park and a surreal experience for the young Cratloe man.
"I'll never forget the full-time whistle, I remember Séadna (Morey) tearing up the sideline and Conor McGrath was beside me, he got the ball and the referee blew the whistle and he drove it. I was so lucky to be beside one of my best friends in that moment. If I could go back in time I would try and take it in more and appreciate it because it goes by in a flash."
That was Saturday, September 28 and although he'd never have imagined it then, it was to be Ryan's last ever game in Croke Park.
After the highs of winning the All-Ireland, Clare crashed back to earth, losing to Cork in Munster and then to Wexford after a replay in the first round of the qualifiers. But there was something to celebrate for Ryan when Cratloe, a dual club in a tiny parish, were crowned county hurling and football champions.
Ryan was a key member of both teams, and looking back now he says it was the fittest he had ever felt, while winning with his team-mates was one of his proudest moments.
There was no glory to be had for Ryan on the pitch in 2015. Clare didn't go well and Cratloe couldn't repeat their feats of the previous year. This meant the off-season was longer than the dual player had been used to.
Ryan had started to feel sluggish but simply put it down to needing to work a bit harder. Towards the end of the year he started putting some extra work in, determined to be in the best shape he could be. He got a strength and conditioning programme and, as always, followed it to the letter.
"At no stage did I think I was overdoing it, but I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting any stronger. It was weird, I was training hard and because I wasn't training with a team I was looking after myself a lot with recovery and I couldn't understand why I wasn't feeling great."
When pre-season rolled around Ryan went back to Clare training, but he kept picking up niggling injuries that he couldn't shake. He started to lose a bit of weight too but he just put it down to hard training.
In the early part of the year he suffered a hip injury and was sent to Santry for assessment. Despite changing his running style, he couldn't get it right.
"The league came around and I wasn't playing well, I was getting frustrated with myself. I felt management were getting frustrated with me. We played Offaly and I felt my pace was gone. I couldn't figure out what was happening."
Around the same time the management asked all the players to get blood tests. It was routine, just to ensure that the squad were all in good health.
The day after they played Limerick in the league, Ryan received a call from Dr Quinn, the long-time medic with the Clare team. He wasn't happy with the adrenalin and testosterone levels in Ryan's blood and wanted to explore the results further.
"I went to Beaumount to meet Professor Chris Thompson. I sensed a small bit of urgency. There was an issue with my pituitary gland, a small gland in my brain that is known as the master gland. Mine just didn't seem to be working right. A lot of the time when your pituitary gland isn't working it's a sign of cancer, so I was in hospital for two days as they checked for tumours. I had an MRI scan on my brain and I was strapped to machines while they tested everything.
"So for two weeks I was waiting to find out if I had cancer. When Thompson called me to tell me I got the all-clear, my first question was, 'Can I go back training because we are due to play Kilkenny in the league'."
Unfortunately for Ryan, it wasn't as simple as that and he still had a serious issue with his pituitary gland that had to be explored and dealt with. Although it was the last thing he wanted, he needed to take things slowly.
"I started medication then and tried to train and play when I could. I wasn't feeling great and the medication wasn't really working. I made the panel that year for the Galway game but I was an unused sub. I tried to play with Cratloe after that but I still wasn't playing well. It was such a struggle, I had no power and I wasn't enjoying games at all, whereas before it was what I lived for. I always had power and strength but they were gone. I was getting pushed off the ball. It was like I had a 'flu, or as the doctor said, it is like trying to drive a car up a hill with the handbrake on.
"My energy levels were wiped, there was no adrenalin running through my body. I was always the fist-tight, teeth-clenched guy and that was gone. My body was failing; the adrenalin gland to an athlete is like petrol to a car."
Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor had taken over from Fitzgerald as joint managers of Clare at the end of 2016. Ryan knew them well from his underage days. They had a great relationship. But, despite a change in medication, there was little improvement in how he was feeling, so after a chat with his doctors and the management, the All-Star winner decided to take the year off.
He was only 25 and in his mind if he could get himself right for once and for all then he would have plenty of years left to line out for club and county.
His brother Diarmuid was coming through the ranks, too, and playing alongside him was a dream for Ryan. He wanted to get back so when Diarmuid was on the senior scene he could be there too.
"I tried everything; I met with various people. I constantly kept in contact with Chris Thompson. I tried different exercise regimes to build up the levels naturally. I was trying nutritionists, herbal remedies. It was always a case that I wanted to keep on top of things because I was convinced I was going to wake up one morning and be feeling brilliant.
"Nothing was working and every time my bloods came back it was like a kick in the stomach. The only thing I hadn't done was take time off work so I went to my employers, Davy Stockbrokers, and spoke to them, explained how much sport means to me and how I needed to try everything to get right. They were brilliant and told me whatever I needed they would support me."
Time ticked by and Ryan kept hope, but eventually he was coming to the realisation that the need for clarity and closure was approaching. The 26-year-old had tried everything and there was no improvement - the adrenalin was showing no signs of returning. He had to make a call.
"Last week, I asked the doctor in Beaumont the question that I had been avoiding for a long time: 'Would I get back to the level I needed to be able to play again?' He was straight up and said it wasn't going to happen for me.
"He told me my body was broken, but I didn't want to accept it so before I told anyone I rang my doctor at home and he said the same thing. I've been bouncing a ball off a wall for two years now and despite trying everything, it just wasn't bouncing back."
Ryan was devastated. He had to tell his family and friends that his days of playing sport were finished at just 26. The hardest part was telling his brother that he would never play beside him, that the dream they shared wouldn't be realised.
"Watching Diarmuid make his debut for Cratloe was very hard, he was wing-back and I should have been here beside him. He played for the Clare seniors recently too, I should have been there too. The hardest thing is thinking you have let people down, when Cratloe lost last year I wondered would I have made a difference and the same with Clare.
"There's guilt there, I've given my family such great days out in Croke Park, I won't be able to do that again. My team-mates in Cratloe are my best friends and I won't be there to play with them again. But I know that I have to look after my health and take it seriously and I have started to do that. I appreciate everything that everyone has done for me, I just let GAA become too big a part of my life and the fact that it's gone now is crippling.
"Looking back, I probably was too into it but I don't regret it because it brought success and I have great memories. When I told Colm Collins the news, he said, 'You did your shopping early' and he is right. To win county medals with the club and to win All-Irelands at senior and under 21 level is special so I see myself as lucky."
Ryan's condition is manageable but he will be on medication for the rest of his life. He is determined to find an outlet that might give him back some of the buzz that playing did and maybe that will be coaching. He is determined that his illness will not define him - champions adjust and Ryan will always be one.
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