Sunday 15 September 2019

Ryan: I'm no 'Plastic Paddy', I want to put Irish swimming on map

Shane Ryan in action for Ireland. Photo credit: David Kiberd for Swim Ireland.
Shane Ryan in action for Ireland. Photo credit: David Kiberd for Swim Ireland.

Cathal Dennehy

He knows what they say, the critics tapping away on message boards under the cloak of anonymity. Shane Ryan has seen the comments from those who believe he's just a Plastic Paddy, using Ireland as a country of convenience.

If they met his parents they'd know different - his Dad is from Laois, his mother from Mayo - and if they saw the American-born swimmer spectating at his cousin's GAA matches in Portarlington, it might change their mind.

Or maybe it wouldn't, because the 25-year-old has learned the truth in that old adage about criticism - the only way to avoid it is to do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.

"People online will take anything they can to tear you down because they're jealous," he says. "I'm not dumb, I know what people are thinking but I am Irish; I just have the wrong accent."

Ryan grew up in an Irish community in Havertown, just outside Philadelphia, and has held an Irish passport since childhood. A standout swimmer for Penn State University, he narrowly missed the US World Championship team in 2013, after which he reached out to Swim Ireland about changing his country of allegiance.

He moved to Dublin in 2015, spending 15 lonely months on the build-up to the Rio Olympics living in an athletes' house on the National Sports Campus. "I went from a college of 50,000 students and a really social environment to a house that's secluded from all life except bunnies and hares," he says. "It was very hard, but it builds character."

And most importantly: "It paid off."

Last December Ryan won Ireland's first ever medal at the World Senior Short Course Championships, his Irish record of 22.76 in the 50-metre backstroke earning him bronze in China.

"We swim to get medals, to be at the top of the world," he says. "It was good to see the tricolour raised at worlds. People are getting to know who we are and I've seen a huge turn in mentality."

At the Rio Olympics Ryan reached the semi-final in the 100m backstroke, bowing out in 14th place overall after a national record of 53.85. After that he returned to Penn State to complete his degree, but in January he returned to Ireland, where he will base himself until the Tokyo Olympics.

He shares a house in Tyrellstown with fellow swimmer Jordan Sloan and with his residence no longer cut off from civilisation, life is more enjoyable. "It's a piece of cake this time," he admits.

In recent weeks he booked his place at July's World Championships in South Korea with an Irish record of 53.73 in the 100m backstroke at the Irish Open. In Abbotstown that day was a horde of relatives from Laois, 16 in all, and they should have much more to cheer in the coming months. Ryan is preparing for elite events in Barcelona, Cannes and Paris, as he chisels his form ahead of the World Championships.

"I want to go there and make a statement: that Irish swimming is here," he says. "The way I've been dropping times in practice I'm really, really confident about what I can do."

Circle K have been announced as the Official Fuel and Convenience Partner to the Irish Olympic Team.

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