A week before the Big Ten championships in late February, Shane Ryan returned home to Havertown to spend time with family and sign posters for young swimmers competing at the Radnor Aquatic Club.
Ryan’s mother, Mary Beth, is a longtime coach at the year-round club.
“I’m the first one who showed him swimming,” Mary Beth said.
One of the most decorated swimmers in Penn State history, Ryan hasn’t spent much time at home over the past two years.
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In April 2015, Ryan announced on Facebook that he was going to put his senior year at Penn State on hold so he could spend it in Dublin, preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“It was definitely different big-time because I was training by myself in a whole other country,” Ryan said before a practice for the Big Ten championships.
Ryan, who has dual Irish and American citizenship, pledged allegiance to Ireland in 2015 because, he said, it gave him the best chance to compete at the Olympics. Ryan — whose father, Thomas, hails from Ireland — fnished 28th in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., which didn’t qualify him for the games.
Following his junior year, Ryan moved to Ireland to begin training.
“It was a chance for him to fulfill a dream, which, luckily, panned out,” Mary Beth said.
Ryan needed to spend at least a year living in Ireland before he could represent the Irish in the Olympics, since he had previously competed for the U.S National Team. His performance on that team was highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter backstroke at the Omaha Duel in the Pool meet.
He stayed in Dublin at the National Sports Campus, which sits on a 500-acre, fenced-in property and provides “state-of-the-art sports facilities to elite athletes in Ireland,” according to its website.
“They would lock us in at night at 10 p.m. and it would open at 4 a.m.,” Ryan said. “It was definitely difficult dealing with that. It was literally pitch black. I had a job to do, and it kept me away from all of the downtown Dublin.”
Most of Ryan’s training peers were in their early teens. His schedule was strict — swim from 5 to 7 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m., amounting to 28 hours of practice a week, eight more than what’s allowed during the NCAA season.
When he wasn’t training or visiting his father’s large side of the family an hour away, Ryan was interning with the Football Association of Ireland, which has a facility in the campus complex.
He worked in marketing and events, teaming up with sponsorships throughout his internship. Though Ryan doesn’t study marketing, he said his major in recreation, parks and tourism management helped prepare him for his internship.
“I would go to Aviva Stadium, where rugby and soccer is played — or football, as they call it over there,” Ryan said. “I’d be running around doing that, getting tickets out for sponsorships, meeting certain people.”
After missing by only a few seconds in previous meets, Ryan qualified for the Olympics in March 2016 with a time of 53.93, placing him first in the 100-meter backstroke final at the Swim Ireland Dave McCullagh/Swim Ulster International. Some of his aunts and uncles were in the stands as he became the first Irish Olympic swimmer to qualify on Irish soil.
In Rio, competing in the 100-meter backstroke, Ryan became the first Penn State swimmer to make it out of the Olympics preliminaries. He advanced to the semifinals with a time of 53.85 seconds — an Ireland record – but his run ended there when he finished 16th overall, with a time of 54.40. He bowed out of the games after a third-place finish in his heat of the 50-meter freestyle preliminaries, with a time of 22.88.
Then, unlike the three Penn State swimmers who participated in the Olympics before him in 1969, 1972 and 2004, Ryan returned to Penn State after competing at the highest level of the sport.
After another stellar campaign, Ryan is now on his third trip to the NCAA championships, which started Wednesday in Indianapolis. He will compete in the 50-yard freestyle, the 100-yard freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke starting Thursday.
“It’s two totally different atmospheres,” Ryan said about Olympic and collegiate swimming. “But it’s amazing to be back. I’m swimming really fast, and it’s the best year I’ve had. And that’s how I want to leave Penn State.”
At the Big Ten championships last month in Columbus, Ohio, Ryan’s winning time of 44.65 in the 100 backstroke broke school, conference meet, Big Ten and pool records.
Ryan seemingly was breaking records every time he jumped in the water, prompting Penn State athletics to post a video on Twitter with the caption, “ICYMI: @shaneryanpsu broke yet another @PennStateSWIM record.” That tweet came after he swam a Penn State record time of 19.03 in the 50-meter freestyle at the Big Ten championships.
Even with all of the success he has had this season, Ryan admitted it was difficult readjusting to college swimming after living in the capital of Ireland for a year and six months.
Ryan said he was lonely at times in Ireland and would often use Snapchat to message his Penn State teammates, though he acknowledged the five-hour time difference made it difficult to communicate with them.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to come back,” Ryan said.
With just the NCAA championships separating him from the end of his collegiate swimming career, Ryan already has his eyes on a professional swimming career, which he hopes will land him in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
“My office is going to be a pool,” he said. “I’d rather do that than try and find a job somewhere else.”
Mark Fischer is a Penn State journalism student.