Peter Ryan

Discipline: Road, Track,
Gender: Male
Date of Birth: 29/04/1990
Born: Tipperary
Lives: Thurles, Tipperary
Team: Upperchurch Drombane Cycling Club

Peter Ryan“As soon as I started looking after myself my whole world started getting better. Even to the point that I can say; ‘my condition is shit. I don’t like it’ and yet actually get strength in that. It’s shit, but I’m going to make the most of it,” explained Peter Ryan. However, the Para-cyclist did not always have this positive of an outlook in the past.

In 2010, Ryan was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy which resulted in him losing 90% of his vision in the space of a year, all at the age of just 20. Along with his vision, the former Tipperary hurling minor’s sporting life had been robbed from him.

“I lost the person that I was, or the person that I thought I was,” reflected Ryan. “Life was simple, but everything became harder since I lost my eyesight, and especially with my mentality. I had a negative mindset and I really thought I didn’t have a whole lot to offer the World.”

He initially turned to drink in the aftermath of his diagnosis, and he even had to spend a period in the Aiséirí Addiction Treatment Centre in Cahir. A turning point that Ryan described as “honestly the best thing that ever happened to me.” 

“I was using drink as a crutch. I wasn’t dealing with the problem at hand and what life had thrown at me,” said the 28-year-old.

During his toughest times, the Tipperary man retracted into himself, becoming almost isolated from the rest of the World.

“I remember even in the treatment centre, I used to have my hoodie going up over my mouth and it got explained to me, ‘you’re actually protecting yourself unknown to yourself’. I was literally blocking my mouth in therapy. My body language wouldn’t even let me talk. That’s how stuck in my ways I was. I bottled up everything for two and half years. I just had meaningless one-liners to explain how I felt like ‘ah sure, it is what it is’. Stuff like that absolutely ruined my soul.”

Thankfully, through the counselling of people like John Toban from Aiséirí and Mary Lavelle from the Fighting Blindness charity, Ryan gradually got back on track. Sport, something that Peter thought was lost to him forever, also made a return to his life.

“There was a big void in my life because I wasn’t playing sport,” he said. This void would be filled again after he discovered para-sport at a 2012 open day in UCD. 

“Getting into para-sport was a big eye-opener. You have people from all walks of life and absolutely every one of them had a story, be it dramatic or not. Be it a condition they were born with or acquired, everyone had a story and a problem. And they weren’t just sitting down and saying I’m just going to be miserable for the rest of my days. They were living a fulfilled life.”

After a brief flirtation with judo, it was cycling and the tandem that Peter ultimately chose to commit himself to. Within a year he became National Champion. Despite this, he is quick to point out that winning isn't the be-all and end-all to him anymore. And some of the things he loves the most about sport now are unquantifiable such as the craic and camaraderie. “There’s a lot of good that comes from sport apart from exercise and winning and losing you know.” 

The physicality of cycling appealed to Ryan, and also the need for a challenge. In his first World Championships in Canada, he got “kicked around the place”, but this only made him become more immersed in the sport. “I was completely out of it, but that actually made sense to me. The fact that if I’m going to do anything in this sport, it’s going to take a lot of work, and the fact that I won’t win anything easy enticed me into the sport even more.”

Astonishingly, within four years of that UCD open day, Ryan found himself sat in the middle of the athletes’ village at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro alongside pilot Marcin Migazgi. It was a far cry from where he had come from, and it was a moment that made Peter step back and appreciate the journey he had made.

“It was the capping off of a really cool chapter in my life where I actually changed who I was and who I was becoming. The young lad that went into that treatment centre was pretty broken, and four years later he’s on top of the world in the Olympic village, doing things you (I) thought were never possible.

“I just loved the atmosphere in the Olympic village, what it stood for and what it stood for in my life. I have a big thing about gratitude and appreciation now, and it was hard not to go off for a coffee, sit in a chair, and just look around and say, ‘fuck, my life has changed in the last few years.’”

To raise funds for his cycling, Peter has his own website peterryan.ie and he also gives motivational talks. “People think I’m a talker now because I talk, but that was the breakthrough for me,” he remembered.

“I really enjoy telling the story in a weird cathartic way because things are so good now. I love doing it because it keeps me grounded. I get to kind of touch base with where I came from and that reaffirms where I’m going, and that’s a really powerful thing I don’t think everyone does. That’s one the reasons I’m doing it. It’s actually good for me to do it… even if I’m not motivating everyone else, I’m keeping myself on the go. 

“The message that I’m always drumming out (at the talks) is that we care more about what other people think of us at times. And it’s often at the expense of ourselves and who we see in the mirror. We would rather portray that we’re happy (than be happy). It’s a warped way of thinking.”

Back on the track, Peter’s main partner is currently Séan Hahessy from Carrick-on-Suir. The pair have been together since 2015 and Peter believes a good relationship between the two of them is essential for success. “That relationship is huge because without Sean I do all my training on a stationary bike in a leisure centre in town. I’ll never get out onto the open road without a pilot”.

Integral to this relationship is one thing: trust.

“It’s the one word that jumps out at me, and I mean in every way, shape and form you can interpret the word trust. In the literal sense, I can’t steer and I’ve no brakes on the back of my bike. We descend at crazy speeds and I’m relying on his decision making.

“And then there’s trust in that it’s just a two-man team. The only one that even compares I reckon is the two boys rowing because it’s two people on one machine with one endeavour… you win together and you lose together, I’d never be giving plaudits to one side of the bike or the other, it is complete synergy on that bike.” 

Peter and Sean don’t talk much during races but due to their familiarity with one another, they have developed an almost telepathic-like understanding. “You have to get to know the nuances of the guy in front because I don’t get to see the races as such. However, I can make out through what Sean is doing what he thinks at times. (If we do talk it’s) one word stuff. One word could mean a whole sentence in our world.”

At the Track World’s in Rio de Janeiro at the end of March, Ryan and Hahessy finished 16th in the kilo and eighth in their specialised event, the individual pursuit.

It was an underwhelming performance for the duo. The fact that everything seemed to be going so well in preparation for the championships made the performance all the more frustrating.

“All the factors were lined up for a really good result, but it didn’t happen on the day. I struggled with that result more so than I’ve struggled with any result ever in a sports capacity because I can’t put my finger on where it went wrong,” he said.

However, the Upperchurch-Drombane man is refusing to dwell on the past, instead focusing on his future. “I’ve taken my couple of days to feel shit about it, but you have to put it to bed and learn from it.” 

After making it to Rio, Peter Ryan wants to have one more crack at the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020. This time, however, he’s set himself a new target.

“As far as I’m concerned there are two tiers. Technically on paper now I’m Peter and I’m a Paralympian. The next step up is medals, otherwise, I’m just doing more of the same so I’ve no interest in going unless I’m aiming for medals.” 

Tokyo will likely be his last competitive cycling outing, after which he will look to build upon his talking and other things in his life that he enjoys doing. As he says himself “I learned life’s lessons a long time ago and if you like doing something that’s not harming anyone else, well that isn’t a bad thing is it?”

By Graham Gillespie

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