Friday 27 April 2018

Swimming: Bryan sees open water after Olympic let-down

After a year of uncertainty, Chris Bryan is getting back to his best

Chris Bryan: ‘I felt like I was in no-man’s land, my coach was gone, I still had a year left in college and I'd missed out on the Olympics. It was a bit of a shambles.’
Chris Bryan: ‘I felt like I was in no-man’s land, my coach was gone, I still had a year left in college and I'd missed out on the Olympics. It was a bit of a shambles.’
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

When swimmer Chris Bryan hit the board at an Olympic qualifier in Portugal last year, he immediately looked to his brother on shore to see how he did. The Clare native knew he was close to qualifying.

But his brother wasn't sure; there was a lot of talking going on, something was up. News started to filter through that he was joint 14th, and it was a photo finish between him and a Hungarian swimmer. Bryan held his breath as his Olympic dreams hung by a thread. Only one of them could go through.

For over a decade he had been working towards that moment. Bryan grew up in Shannon and was introduced to the sport by a neighbour who was a swim teacher. There was a club in the town, the Shannon Stars, but it wasn't competitive. Of course they did the Community Games and regional galas but Bryan wanted more so he joined the Ennis Swim Club.

This offered more training sessions, bigger groups and more kids his age to compete against. It also meant more travel for his parents who had to make the 50km round trip from Shannon to Ennis five mornings a week. But it was what Bryan wanted, he was obsessed with swimming.

He started researching his sport, reading all he could in books and online. Looking up qualifying times and figuring out exactly what he needed to do for the next 10 years to hit those targets.

With the club in Ennis he was training five mornings a week but he knew his competitors were doing more so he pushed harder. He started coming up with his own programmes and doing extra sessions. His grandfather was a running coach so he knew a lot about physical training and his father had an interest in swimming. Bryan was supported by his family and that counted for a lot.

He did okay through the underage ranks but was never the best in the country. This was hard to take because ultimately he was always looking longingly at the world stage. As he grew up he tried most events going from the backstroke to distance. However, he was a grafter so the longer he spent in the pool the better he got. In Clare, beach lifesaving is a prominent sport and Bryan competed well in it. As he spent longer in the pool and improved at his distance swimming, trying his hand at the 10km open water event became a realistic option.

For most people being in the sea for over two hours is a daunting prospect but not for Bryan. In 2010 his hard work and sacrifices paid off when he qualified for his first European Championships.

"They didn't go great for me," recalls Bryan. "I was used to racing in Ireland. I'd always get out in front by the one-kilometre mark. I tried to do that again and at eight kilometres I blew up. I was jumping all over the water. I got my tactics all wrong, finished in 33rd place and got two black eyes for my troubles."

Bryan emerged more determined than ever and the following year he went to the World Championships in Shanghai hoping to do better.

Again his inexperience came against him and tactically he was found wanting but still he improved on his European performance and finished just inside the top 30. A few days later, he took part in the 5km and finished eighth.

These improvements gave him great confidence and his Olympic dreams started to crystalise. He put his sports science degree at the University of Limerick on hold and focused fully on London 2012.

He went to Australia and started training extremely hard, clocking up over 100km a week. He then spent some time in Germany with some of the best open water swimmers in the world and was matching them in training. Everything was going according to plan until he arrived in Portugal for the Olympic qualifier.

"About three days before the race I noticed spots on my chest, I had a rash and it was on my front, back and arm. My back was tight too but I was swimming well and I didn't feel too bad."

As it turned out Bryan had shingles and although he was initially worried about being prohibited from competing by the doctor, he got the all-clear because the rash was showing so he wasn't contagious.

He tried to stay positive, went for a swim that morning and was feeling fine. The conditions in Portugal were cold too and that suited him. So he set out slow, unsure of how his body was going to react to the pressure. With just over 2km to go he realised that it was now or never so he went for it, gave it everything and when he hit the board there was nothing left in the tank.

An hour passed before officials informed him that they were giving the spot to the Hungarian swimmer. Then he learned all was not yet lost. "The way it works is the allocations outside the top ten are continental so there were five in total, for example there was a European spot and one Oceania spot," he says.

"I was fighting for the European spot with the Hungarian but because the New Zealander who was the best Oceania finisher was outside the country's qualification criteria they decided not to accept the spot. I was told it would automatically go to me because the rules said that it would go to the next best finisher but I wasn't sure."

Bryan left Portugal hopeful and continued to train. A couple of weeks passed and he heard nothing. "We told Swim Ireland to get onto them but they were afraid to step on people's toes. There was a guy from Guam who finished ten minutes behind me but he was from Oceania as well and he wanted the spot.

"I kept training because I was hoping I qualified but I didn't know what was happening. Then I looked up Guam news and I saw that they accepted the spot for their swimmer and I was devastated as I thought it would go to the next best finisher not next best continental finisher."

Bryan was bitterly disappointed and felt that more could have been done by Swim Ireland on his behalf.

"Swim Ireland weren't aggressive enough but we should have done more ourselves with FINA but we didn't want to go behind Swim Ireland's back. We were onto them loads but I just had to trust they would push my case but maybe they weren't used to being in that situation.

"I felt a little bit let down by Swim Ireland and looking back I think maybe things could have been done differently but at the time we were doing what we thought was right. I'm no worse off as a swimmer but from a sponsorship point of view, being an Olympian would help."

After his Olympic let-down, Bryan had to deal with the departure of his coach Ronald Claes. It was a lot to cope with and he felt very isolated at his training centre at the University of Limerick.

"I felt like I was in no-man's land, my coach was gone, I still had a year left in college and I'd missed out on the Olympics. It was a bit of a shambles. I had a lot of meetings with Peter Banks of Swim Ireland as I was worried Limerick was going to shut down.

"A lot of the younger swimmers there were looking to me for guidance but I wanted to get away from it because there was so much going on. In January, we got a new coach, Lars Humer, and things have been getting back on track."

In fact, Bryan has been going from strength to strength. In May, he won Portugal's Open Water National Championship, last week he finished seventh in the World University Games and tomorrow he swims in the World Championships in Barcelona.

Bryan has been through a lot already in his career but all things considered he's really just getting started.

Irish Independent

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