Havertown’s Shane Ryan, the 6’6” record-setting Penn State swimmer, headed to Ireland this week with his Irish-born dad, Tom, to begin the next leg of an athletic career that could lead him to the Olympics.
A member of the USA Swimming national team, Ryan, after many discussions and soul-searching with his Penn State and US national team coach Tim Murphy, decided his best shot at a berth on an Olympic team would be in Ireland, where, because of his father, a County Laois native, he’s eligible for citizenship.
Ryan is ranked fourth or fifth in the US and he would have to place in the top two in finals in the US—where there are many topnotch swimmers–to qualify to head to Rio in 2016 as part of the US Olympic team. His pace is certainly up to par. His 100-meter backstroke time is faster than the “A” standard for Olympic qualification and he’s close to it for the 100-meter freestyle. He broke the national record in the 100-meter backstroke.
It was a tough decision, said Ryan, who sat down with me during a going-away party last weekend, attended by family and friends in the spacious backyard of his family home. “I talked it over with my coach and we decided that it was my best chance to get to the Olympics and to get a medal,” explained the 21-year-old, a recreation, park, and tourism management major at Penn State’s main campus. “In the US, they only take the top two and if I come in third, there goes my shot. But I also saw it as an opportunity for me to help put Irish swimming on the map. “
According to an article in the Irish Times, Ryan will be considered “the hottest Olympic swimming prospect in the country.” By international swimming federation (FINA) rules, he has to live for a year in Ireland before he’s eligible for the Irish team, though he will be training with them.
It’s not unusual for athletes with dual citizenships to compete for teams outside their birth countries. In fact, 120 out of the 3,000 competitors at last year’s Sochi Winter Olympics were doing just that, found a Pew Research Center survey.
Yes, they often do it for personal gain. But some, like Ryan, also have an emotional connection to another country. Like many children of immigrants, Ryan grew up with a strong sense of his heritage, and not just because of his father, who himself emigrated to the US to play Gaelic football for the Gaelic Athletic Association. His mother, Mary Beth Bonner Ryan, a singer, aquatics coach and a former Miss Mayo, “also lived for a year in Ireland when she was my age,” he says.
His grandfather was the late Phillip “Knute” Bonner, a Philadelphia police officer, a long-time member of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association. (Ryan’s mother now sits on board of the organization that plans the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.)
His maternal grandmother, Patricia Noone Bonner, was, like her grandson, the child of immigrants. Her father, Martin Noone, was a dedicated Irish republican from County Mayo who bequeathed to her a strong passion to bring about a united Ireland. Pat Bonner has been involved in that cause through various organizations for more than 40 years.
“And I come from Havertown, which is known as the 33rd county of Ireland, because there are so many Irish here,” says Ryan. “Being Irish has always been a big part of my life.”
He’ll be missing his family—his parents, brother Brendan, college student, and 16-year-old sister Tara, and his grandmother. (See photos below.) But he won’t be wanting for kin. “My Dad is one of 10,” he says. He has dozens of cousins, some his own age, who will be a short trip away in Portlaoise, south west of Dublin where Ryan will be living.
He’ll be working while he’s in Ireland, but is taking a year’s hiatus from college. But he’ll head back to Penn State, where he has a full scholarship, for his degree once his Olympic dreams in Ireland are played out one way or the other. There are no guarantees.
“I need to do my job,” says Ryan. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work. You don’t get there just by being faster and having natural talent. I realize that this is a once-in-a-life time opportunity and I think if you have a chance to do something, you ought to take it.”