‘Don’t worry, you can’t offend me’ laughs Peter Ryan when I stumble over my words at the beginning of our interview, trying to decide where to take the conversation first.
Ryan’s story is a tragic one, yet underneath it all is an inspiring tale of how one man overcame the worst ordeal possible and not only uses it to help others but looks to be heading to a Paralympic Games. His story is one that no column inches can do justice and one that this writer feels totally out of his depth trying to tell.
At 19 years old, Peter Ryan had the world at his feet. A keen hurler and proud Tipperary man, Ryan was fresh off representing the county minor team alongside All-Ireland winners; James Breen, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, and Noel McGrath. He admits to being a ‘Jack-the-Lad’ sort of character. Then his world came crashing down around him in an unimaginable way.
Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy is a rare genetic disorder that strikes without warning and robs you of 80% of your eyesight over 12-14 months. This rare disorder flipped Ryan’s life on its head and led him down a dark path that would eventually see him in rehab.
“I was 19 and just coming into my independence, then you’re looking at the initial shock of going down to Waterford to be tested for three or four months for something that I didn’t know what it was. Then you have the diagnosis which is crippling in itself, then the isolation factor and the unknown. I spent 12 months of my life with my eyesight getting worse and worse, I lived that.”
The fun-loving, outgoing county minor had to live through the ordeal of making wholesale changes to his life whilst slowly going blind. What should have been the most enjoyable years of his life turned into his biggest battle.
“I couldn’t fully come to terms with it, my head was fried. I was afraid of the world. You can’t be prepared for that at 19, there’s no pamphlet on how to be a blind boy.
“It was a tough couple of years.”
How did he cope with it? The truth is, he didn’t… he couldn’t. He tried to ignore what was happening to him. Hurling was his life, and when that was taken from him, he broke.
“Hurling was my world at the time and I didn’t fully grasp that which is why it hit me so hard. So much of my life revolved around that. Whether I was going to make it to the top or not didn’t affect me, it was the fact I didn’t realise how good I had it.
“I loved it, and then it was gone.
“I kept going for as long as I could. I remember the (last) game I had a few tears in the shower afterwards because I just knew this was not going anywhere good. My sight was only getting worse, I tried to hold to it just for the sake of holding on to it, that was a really tough spell.”
Peter Ryan had all the help he needed to try to get through those years, but he didn’t want it. His life eventually spiralled out of control.
“It took over two years, and that came about through me going in to a treatment centre for alcohol. I spent too long in that social area, but it wasn’t social, it was avoidance coping and not knowing where my life was going.” Ryan said.
“I wasn’t the stereotype drinking out of a brown bag I was just at every party under the sun, not dealing with life. It wasn’t me and the only people I was hurting were my family who tried so hard to help me. I was causing a lot of heartache at home and a lot of hassle in my own life, getting to a very low ebb where something had to change.”
The change came about in the form of rehab. Ryan admits he had a distorted view of what it was exactly, and worried about being the only young person, but he looks back on the experience as potentially saving his life.
“Still the best decision I’ve ever made.” Ryan said.
“The treatment centre itself was a shock to the system, I was 22, it didn’t fit the mould of having anyone my age that was there.
“It was brilliant though, it put a bit of structure back in my life, but also made me deal with the things I wasn’t talking about. I only look fondly upon that place, even though it was hard because they genuinely break you down to get you to a good place.”
Whilst being treated Ryan realised he had to get back into sport. Hurling may have gone, but there were options. Ryan attended a Paralympic open-day in Dublin with a new lease of life and open to trying anything, but admits that cycling ‘ticked all the right boxes’.
“It was coming out through counselling that I needed to get back in to sport, but I had my hang ups around sport, around words like disability or para, I didn’t understand the world enough.
“I went up to a Paralympic open day, with an open mind I just wanted to get back into sport, I had some good chats with different people from different sports.
“There was a cycling club at home and a few local people that wanted to help so I just snowballed into it. I went for a trial up in Dublin and once I did that it kicked into gear, I was told I had a bit of potential, they put me on a fast track programme and it just went from there, but had it not been for those local people, I would have quit a long time ago.
“It started ticking all the right boxes, a bit of adrenaline with descending, a bit of a danger factor being on the bike, it ticked a lot boxes for me.”
Ryan won a national title early on, before entering into the international scene where he really got a grasp of how competitive the sport was. After five years, Ryan is only now beginning to break into the Top 10 in the world.
He admits to having looked down on Paralympic sports before understanding fully what it was.
“I went from a year previous thinking sure what’s ‘para’, I almost looked down on it in some ways, but that was without any knowledge, I just didn’t understand what I was taking part in.
“And then I got kicked around Canada for 120KM and realised If I’m going to do anything like this it’s going to take a lot of work.”
When competing, Ryan needs someone to guide him. With only 20% vision, cycling downhill at rapid speeds isn’t advised. Luckily for him, his ‘pilot’ is another Tipperary man.
“Sean is my pilot, another Tipp man, there’s a good Tipp to Tokyo buzz going on at the moment which is great.” Ryan said.
“He got paired up with me a couple of years ago. Sean would be a very talented individual cyclist and he’d be on one of the best amateur teams in the country like. He would’ve raced on the u18 international team so he’s always been a high setter.
“On the tandem you have to get on with the person off the bike as well as on it and we have a good thing going.”
Peter Ryan is a full-time athlete now training six days a week, however, he supplements the costs of cycling by sharing his story with others. It is a selfless deed by Ryan who fully believes that if he doesn’t open up on what he went through, how will someone else get out the other side.
“I like talking about it as it’s therapuetic in some sense and I am doing well now but it’s looking back on the hurt that drives tomorrow. At 19 none of us knew where we were going to be in five years time, but I definitely didn’t think I was going to be blind.
“I like putting on my different caps and switching between tracksuits and suits. In both my lines of work I am working for myself and they are both connected to each other, it’s all about Tokyo 2020.
“I find it hard to say no to them because there’s a need for it, and I like doing them and they’re rewarding.”
Unfortunately, public speaking can only subsidise the costs of cycling, it can’t completely cover it. Ryan still needs to secure sponsorship, it is something he admits is a constant struggle.
“It’s actually the constant, I do the talking because the actual traditional sponsorship is hard to come by, I know it might be an easier sell come Tokyo 2020, when theres a bit more buzz around it.
“I like going into companies, I like feeling like I’m on my way to train myself.
“Hopefully that can translate where I do a talk and a sponsor can latch on to that but we’re on the lookout same as every other athlete in the country, but I’ve twice the costs because of the pilot, thats the thing people don’t realise.”
Peter Ryan has had to endure more than most people do in their lifetime. Upon reflection though, he sees it as a blessing rather than a curse, an opportunity to leave this world better than he found it. If Peter Ryan can use his story to help others then it is one of success.
“I know I have more to offer now, there is a genuine drive to do good things while I am on this earth.
“If I grow at the talking I can go into different avenues, not full time but I want to keep it going because there’s a need for it in society.
“I want to help people. My favourite thing about talking is the one-on-one connections, how someone can relate to my struggles. I guarantee you I won’t be doing something that doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be driving for things.
“I’m in the space now where I have to kick on and my story is one of my strongest tools.”
If you would like to support Peter Ryan in his quest for Paralympic Gold follow the link below: