Irish Paralympic cyclist Peter Ryan has endured more than most in his young life but the 23-year-old from Upperchurch in Tipperary believes that losing his sight in the space of a few months isn’t going to halt a promising sporting career.
A former dual county minor, Ryan developed an extremely rare condition known as Leberf Hereditary Optic Neuropathy in 2010.
It’s so uncommon that very little is known about it. Unfortunately, what is known is that it takes the central vision away in both eyes rapidly, it’s hereditary (males get it and females are the carriers) and, worst of all, there is no cure.
Ryan, who was 19 at the time, traces the moment he knew something was radically wrong. Playing for his club in a challenge match against the county’s U21s, he noticed how poorly he was going, and how silly the mistakes he was making were. One incident in particular, stands out.
“It was fully harmless,” he explains. “They weren’t blatant mistakes, they were just things I was giving out to myself over. I was playing a game for the club in February and a team-mate was bottled up. I was in the pocket waiting for a handpass – there was only five yards between us. I called for a pass, and the ball just went clean past me, never even touched my hand. It wasn’t part of my game to make stupid mistakes and it really bothered me.”
Peter went for an eye test the following Saturday and couldn’t read one figure from the board he was presented with a few feet away. He recalls the ophthalmologist clearing the lens as he thought it had to be fogged up. No one could be this bad. But Peter was just that. Needless to say, his sporting career promptly hit a brick wall.
He had been an outstanding hurler and footballer and represented his county in both, and soccer player. The realisation that he’d never be able to pursue those codes, catapulted him into a cycle of depression that lasted over two years.
“Sport was always a big part of my life and when I lost that, I lost a part of me,” he accepts. “I was only down inside because I wasn’t talking to anyone or telling people. I was just getting on with it, laughing and joking, but inside I was crying. I had sport, I had work and I had socialising but when two of the three of them went I just went socialising so I just spent all my time in a pub, pretending things were okay.
“I was putting up a front and I was trying to be standing brave in front of them at home, making it look like I was okay. But I wasn’t. I was crippled. I had to accept it there for a finish and that probably only came about maybe 15 months ago.”
And it was only when he accepted it that he began to see a chink of light.
He was told that Cadbury’s were sponsoring a fast-track talent ID day for athletes keen on trying out for the Paralympics so he took a fist of training tops and shorts to UCD and went hell for leather, trying out for every sport.
Cycling Ireland’s High Performance coach Brian Nugent saw Ryan and liked him straight away. But Ryan wasn’t sure if cycling was for him.
“I knew nothing about cycling, had no cycling background, not a clue, but I got a loan of a tandem bike off Denis Toomey [Paralympic coach]. The local club — Upperchurch-Drombane CC — started up about two years ago and I went off with them one Sunday morning to see how I’d get on,” he explains.
“There’s no point in me bullshitting you saying I fell in love with it the first day but I just remember thinking ‘this is brilliant — getting to knock a sweat out again’. That’s the only way I was looking at it. I was at it a month and I said, ‘I need a race. There has to be more than just spinning around the roads on a Sunday morning’. So I entered a time trial up in Mayo and I thought that was the best thing I’d ever done in my life. It was sheer class. There was nowhere to hide and I liked the whole concept of the time trial, just balls out, me and my pilot. That brought me on some amount with cycling in my head and I said I had to be racing, or else I’d give it up.”
That was just over 12 months ago and since then he’s won a national title, represented Ireland at a World Cup in Canada and is now setting his sights on qualifying for the next Games in Rio in 2016. It’s a long road, but he knows it can’t be as painful as the road he’s travelled so far.
“I never thought there’d be any positives coming out of this situation but once I started to get around the concept of this is the way things are going to be, then that gave me the drive to move and start making something of my life because things mightn’t change. I have to work with what I have,” he said.
He has made remarkable progress, winning a national title in June with Damian Shaw as his pilot as well as representing his country. The experience of the latter at a World Cup event has given him a goal that he’ll stop at nothing to try and achieve.
“Listen, I’m a winner. I don’t really see the point in entering unless you’re going to win, but at the same time I must be realistic. I just want to work hard and progress and see where that takes me. I’m a sportsman so taking up a challenge like that is only jumping at me, but I’m never going to say it out loud. I have my internal goals and like I say, I just want to get better and better. From next year, points are up for grabs for Rio, so I’ll be dogging myself this winter to be the best I can be and we’ll see what happens, going hell for leather.”
First or last, he’s already a winner.
€15,000 for Fighting Blindness
Peter Ryan and the Fighting Blindness charity were recently presented with a cheque for €15,000 following a novel fundraiser at Thurles racecourse.
Along with his brothers Conor and Denis he organised a race-day at the Tipperary track but instead of horses running, it was the students of his Alma Mater, Thurles CBS – a school he played Harty Cup hurling with for three years. Each fundraiser wore a specially commissioned Fighting Blindness jersey and principal Tiernan O’Donnell said the day was a great success.
“It’s a credit to Peter and his family that he has come out fighting like this. He’s an inspiration to us in the schooland he should be very proud of what he has done.”
The money raised will go towards Peter’s training fund as well as the charity, Fighting Blindness, of which he’s an ambassador.
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