Across the Pond and Into the Pool
Shane Ryan is not from Ireland. His dad is originally from the Emerald Isle — he’s been here for 30 years and still has a thick accent — but the redshirt senior member of Penn State’s swimming team is a native Pennsylvanian, born and raised just outside Philadelphia.
And yet when Ryan approached the blocks for the semifinals of the men’s 100-meter backstroke at the Rio Olympics, he wasn’t wearing red, white, and blue. Instead, Ryan was there representing Ireland, his adopted homeland and the country where he spent the past year of his life.
The idea of swimming for Ireland has been in Ryan’s head for some time. He’d competed for the U.S. in the past, and was 0.01 seconds away from qualifying for the national team in 2015. But Ryan started thinking about his future. “If I stay here, they only take top-2,” Ryan explains. “I could get top-2, but I could also get dead last, something could happen. So for my best interest, I decided… that I was gonna go to Ireland.”
He made this decision just before finals week of Penn State’s 2015 spring semester. Ryan was a junior at the time — he ended up redshirting what would have been his senior year — and said that he made this decision in three days.
The process of becoming Irish started on May 13, 2015. He flew over to Europe, went to the pool, met his coaches, dropped his things off at the house where he stayed, went to meet with a lawyer, and got his name on a lease to prove he was living in Ireland. He needed to do a few other things to establish residency, like get Ireland’s version of a social security card, but once he signed his lease, the clock began counting down.
Ryan had to live in Ireland for a year to become a resident. He ended up staying over there for 16 months, living with extended family while training in the pool and working for the Football Association of Ireland. Because he wasn’t a resident yet, he wasn’t able to swim for Ireland and instead competed for a club team.
Fast forward a year and Ryan officially “turned Irish” on the day before he left to go to European Championships in London.
But getting to that point was a challenge for Ryan due to his performance in the pool. His training was more intensive than ever before – Ryan swam five days a week, where he would begin practice early in the morning and accrue about 70,000 meters. He calls swimming that much “absurd” because as a sprinter, his training has never been about distance.
Having trained in the States his entire life, the European style of training was new to him. He cites the emphasis on nutrition and training being more technically and aerobic-based as major differences. “I needed that reality check,” Ryan says. “If I want to go for (the Olympics in) 2020 and if I want to go pro – which that’s the plan, to become pro once my NCAA eligibility ends – that’s what I need to do.”
He also remembers experiencing his lowest point in December of 2015 after a meet in Amsterdam. His performance wasn’t up to par and it led to him and his coaches sitting down and discussing his training regimen. “I tried doing what the coaches told me to do and it did not work out,” he says. “And I had to sit down with them and say ‘Listen, this is not gonna work.’ I swam like a 55.2 (in the 100-meter backstroke). I’ve done that without swimming for two weeks.
“We changed the training,” Ryan continues. “We changed to more speed, more power, more lifting, more static rope work, and it turned out to be great.”
Ryan qualified for the Olympics in March. He eventually made it to Rio, where he swam the 50 and 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter backstroke. His performance in the 100 back got him to the semifinals, where he came in 16th — he wasn’t happy with his time of 54.50, but coming in 16th was the best-ever finish for a Nittany Lion in an Olympic pool, while his time of 53.85 seconds in the prelims was an Irish record in the event.
Prior to stepping onto the block for the semifinals, he heard “Let’s Go Shane” spontaneously break out. As it turns out, his mother — along with some friends who made the trip down and brought a Penn State flag — convinced all of the Brazilian natives in their section to chant for her son. It was so loud that the chant could be heard on the other side of the natatorium.
Now, he’s back in State College with a different perspective on what he needs to do to be the best swimmer and teammate possible. His goal is for Penn State to be one of the top programs in America, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
“The coaches can only do so much and that’s where the teammates come into play,” Ryan says. “If I don’t see something that’s right, I’m gonna call them out on it — on the coaches’ side, even on the men’s and women’s sides. We need to do what’s best for the team and what’s best for this university, and I’m here to do that.”
This is something that Ryan says he learned during his time abroad. He needed to figure out what worked for him, and now that he knows what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t), he can go up to his coaches and teammates and offer advice, support, and when necessary, constructive criticism.
To celebrate his biggest achievement to date, Ryan decided to get the Olympic rings tattooed on his ribs. One day after he came back to campus, someone asked him whether he got them because he went to the Olympics or if he got them because he felt like it.
As Ryan said, people don’t just get the Olympic rings tattooed onto their bodies. No matter which country they represent, an Olympian is an Olympian.
Bill DiFilippo, online editor