Shane Ryan was happy to see the last of his Irish digs.
For 15 months, home for Ireland’s Pennsylvania-born and raised 100m backstroke hope was a nondescript house in the far reaches of the National Sports Campus (NSC) in West Dublin.
It made for a lot of long nights after the long days spent in the pool.
Diver Ollie Dingley — who followed a similar path in transferring allegiance, though in his case it was from Great Britain — was a housemate but they rarely crossed paths given their different schedules within and beyond the Campus gates.
The NSC is morphing into a truly spectacular venue as more specialised sports facilities and pitches make the leap from architect’s page to reality, but there is as yet little or nothing by way of diversion for the few elite athletes currently stationed there.
“There’s not even a pub around,” says an incredulous Ryan.
“You can’t even go out and watch a football match. Luckily I worked at the FAI. I was in the events and marketing department so I did a lot of stuff with marketing and sponsorships.
“I went to the Aviva stadium for the games, making sure stuff was in place for the matches. It was good. I needed that for college. I needed 300 hours and it was good. Before that I would just walk around the campus. I needed a dog. I felt like an old lady. It’s bad out there.”
Ryan is fulsome in his praise for the sporting infrastructure and recognises that the campus is still going through an infancy of sorts. There will eventually be coffee shops and a hotel, and a more normal feel to life there.
But he will be long gone when that all comes. Once the Olympics is behind him it is back to Penn State to pick up where he left off for the last year of his degree in university, although he will continue to represent the land of his father’s birth in the pool.
He brought a serious pedigree with him on arrival.
The 22-year old was a 16-time All-American and 11-time All-State honoree at high school. He broke a number of records besides and went on to be named Swimmer of the Big Ten Championships during his second year in college.
His fourth place in the 100m backstroke at the US trials for the 2013 World Championships earned a place on the national team for the 2013-14 season, but that meet in Indianapolis put the path ahead of him in a perspective as clear as the water beneath him.
David Plummer, who would win silver at the World Long Course Championship in Barcelona that year, won the trial. Matt Grevers, the Olympics gold medallist in the 100m backstroke in London and silver medallist in Beijing four years earlier, was second.
And only the top two Americans would earn a spot for Rio.
That’s where Ryan’s dual citizenship came in. Already a holder of an Irish passport, he contacted Swim Ireland about making the switch and, though there was hard-headed sense to the move, it was one that clearly involved the heart.
Irishness was integral to his upbringing in Havertown, Pennsylvania. His parents were Irish, he and his siblings were blessed with Irish names, the family was immersed in the old country’s culture and sporting traditions long before he pitched up in Dublin.
Tough as life was at the NSC, Ryan had the release valve of his dad’s side of the family in Laois.
Peter Banks, head performance director of Swim Ireland, dropped him at the train station in Clondalkin every Saturday after practice and a relative would pick him up in Portarlington.
He played golf at Garryhinch, watched some movies, and basically immersed himself in the humdrum idyll of familial normality. Best of all were the eight months he got to spend with his grandfather before his passing at the turn of the year.
“I don’t know if I would have lasted without all that. I probably would have come over but I probably would have given up. It’s bad out on the campus. Ollie is close enough where he can jump on a flight and go home. I have, like, a seven-hour flight to get home. It’s a €1,000 flight.”
It isn’t as if he wasn’t doing OK back across the pond. Penn State’s only 50m pool is outdoors, which makes it unusable for months at a time, and yet Ryan was still ranked in or around the top dozen 100m backstrokers in the world and in possession of a time quicker than the Olympic ‘A’ standard when he moved over in May 2015.
Yet he arrived with considerable work to do in that there was 10kg more of him when he got here. Ryan and Banks both knew what had to be done and the weight fell away in the secluded surrounds of the Sports Campus.
“I had been living the college diet. It wasn’t a good year for me before I came to Ireland. I was sick a lot and just gained weight. I had the flu at Big Tens, I had the flu at NCAAs. So I was just screwed up.
"I dunno, maybe I was a bit sad. I just didn’t care at the time. Also, I wasn’t watching what I was eating. Dominos pizza was on speed dial for me at the time.
"I started watching what I was eating when I came over here and it slowly but surely diminished. I wasn’t focusing on it. It just happened. I’m ready now. I can’t wait.”
He looks back to his last few years in the States and thinks he wasn’t ready to mix it with the Grevers and the Ryans.
That’s not the case now, he says, although the 53.93 season’s best he brings to Rio or the 53.84 he posted at those US trials in 2013 are unlikely to earn him a place in the final.
His leap of faith has earned him a place at the Games.
He needs a leap in form now.
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