It’s coming up on six years now since Shane Ryan first swapped life as one of 50,000 undergrads at Penn State University for a monastic existence on the National Sports Campus in West Dublin and a shot at the 2016 Olympic Games.
It was a serious leap of faith for a man born and raised in the States and just turned 22.
Ryan’s long days training in the pool were followed by even longer evenings as one of the few athletes resident on the campus. His only mode of travel was a bicycle. Sleep was used not just as a means of rest and recovery but as an instrument to pass the time.
Was it worth it? You bet. He recorded a PB in the 100m backstroke at the Games in Rio and he is well on course to go again if Tokyo hears the starter’s gun. He has already stood on four championship podiums for Ireland and the whole experience on this side of The Pond has been just as rewarding out of the water.
Living here has allowed him to spend plenty of quality time with his relatives in Portarlington, including a grandfather who passed away eight months after his arrival. Add to that the personal growth he has experienced by striking out so far on his own.
Ryan has spent time on work placement with the FAI and secured sponsorship deals with the likes of Windsor Motor Group — no more cycling — Circle K, and the beverage company Nocco. There are plans to start up a swimming project to encourage the next generation of Irish kids.
Home now, in what is his second full-time stint in Ireland, is Tyrellstown where he spent three months through the first lockdown without seeing anyone on anything other than a screen. Solitude was easier that time. A good people person, he felt perfectly at ease in his own company.
“I have been asked if I ever regretted it, or would I do it again, and the answer is that I would. 100%, no doubt. I would make the exact same decision. I’m now a four-time medallist for Ireland and I love it. I love what I do. I love representing Ireland and I love the connections I have made and it’s only going to get better from here.” Ryan was only three months arrived back in 2015 when Donald Trump announced his intention to run for the Republican party’s presidential nomination on a platform of ‘America First’ and a promise to build a border wall that would be billed to Mexico.
America’s story since has been one of deepening division and despair and it all culminated with the events in Washington DC two weeks ago when the outgoing president exhorted his supporters to “fight like hell” before the mob descended on, and breached, the Capitol building with deadly effect.
Ryan wasn’t long returned from a Christmas break at home in Pennsylvania with his family when it happened. His sense of incredulity was clear as he wondered aloud quite how something like that could happen.
“It was kind of heartbreaking because America is based on a democracy and they were trying to do what they were doing and Trump just said go down and storm the Capitol and people did. That’s how crazy the United States is.
“Living there and growing up, you always hear that America is great but, right now, from the outside, it’s just about how crazy it is and how screwed up everything is as well. I’m just really happy that I’m living here in Ireland. There really isn’t much more to say.” His own visit home, his first in over a year, only reiterates the culture wars tearing the US apart and the job awaiting Joe Biden, who will also have to combat another strain of virus that has claimed 400,000 lives and counting.
Ryan’s parents and sister are among the 24 million Americans to have contracted Covid-19, their adherence to social distancing proving insufficient when so many fellow citizens insist on approaching the pandemic with blinkers rather than a facemask.
His Christmas visit was restricted to some home training, an outdoor pool, his own family and a handful of friends who had just tested negative prior to his arrival. That Ireland and the US inhabit parallel universes right now was apparent in the amazement some expressed at our 5kms zones and nationwide closures.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf did introduce tighter restrictions after he tested positive in early December but they were loosened again by the month’s end and Ryan describes the current approach in his native state as something akin to Ireland’s Level 3.
How bad is it there? Pennsylvania’s population is two-and-a-half times that of Ireland but their caseload is 4.5 times greater and confirmed deaths almost 7.5 times more than figures recorded in this country since last spring.
“It’s like they’re done with Covid but Covid isn’t done with them.”
Gerald Kennedy was born the same year Martin Luther King gave his I Have A Dream speech by the Washington monument but reflecting on the great man’s recent birthday as well as the insurrection attempt that took place only three miles away at Capitol Hill, he couldn’t help but wonder if the progress that had been made in those intervening 57 years were merely an illusion.
“I’ll put it to you like this. If those had been black people storming the Capitol, what do you think would have happened? I know four people were killed, and even one would have been one too many, but we all know if those had been black people, it would have been a lot more. It would have been an absolute slaughter.
“It’s just messed up how these last four years have knocked America back. We’d made all these great strides but just there on Martin Luther King Day, I found myself wondering, Have we really moved anywhere?” Kennedy has.
For most of the last 35 years Ireland has been home for him. After playing top-level Division One college basketball with Virginia Tech alongside NBA star Dell Curry, father of Steph, the genial South Carolinian would cross the Atlantic to light up gyms all across Ireland for the guts of 15 years, including scoring the most remarkable basket in Irish hoops history with an outrageous 74-foot buzzer-beater on the last day of the season to clinch the 1988 Superleague title for Neptune. His children were born here, including Erica Cody, the brilliant young singer and songwriter that guested on Irish Women’s Harmony’s cover of Dreams. This past year though also awakened her to just what a nightmare being in black in America can be.
Kennedy experienced it himself. “I was raised not to see colour but I wasn’t blind either. You’d still see the signs, ‘No colours allowed’ and the coloured water fountains and bathrooms.
“My grandfather was shot and killed at a baseball game by a Klansman. He ran a semi-pro outfit and was on first base coaching which was his right. This guy was telling him to move but he wouldn’t because it was his right to stay there so your man killed him right there and then, on the baseball diamond. I have an aunt who was at my college Hall of Fame induction and her name is Neverseen because she was in my granny’s belly when her father was shot.” Growing up there’d be occasional scrapes; one time he and his friends were out on their bikes when they were chased by a group of white men and their wheels were taken and locked away. And of course he heard the racial slurs. “But we were basically taught to just ignore it and turn the other cheek. They were the ones who seemed more angry than us.
“If anything, I found you encountered not so much racism but ignorance in Ireland than in the States. I remember pushing Erica in her stroller and a woman spat in front of us and I had to pull her to the side. Once she heard my voice she said, ‘Oh, you’re not one of them.’ And I just calmly said, ‘Who’s ‘one of them’?’ And she said, ‘Africans.’ And I had to explain, ‘Well, my ancestors are African. I’m African American.’ It’s happened a few times I’ve had to pull people aside like that. But as a whole I don’t think Ireland is a racist place. If it was, I’d have just gone back and stayed home rather than lived here all these years.” Like many Americans, he rejoiced in the election of Barack Obama to the highest office. This time with Joe Biden he’s more measured, albeit relieved the previous incumbent — imposter — is gone.
“I think in politics even the most genuine and principled are chasing their tails, trying to clean up the mess from the guy before, and by the time they’re able to get to the issues they stand their time is up.
“The last guy should never have been there. I remember Erica calling me at four o’clock in the morning, crying, ‘He got in. Oh my God, he got in.’ I hadn’t really been paying much attention but she’d been following the primaries and everything and knew what it’d mean for her relatives in South Carolina. And they’ve since told us, [white] people they’ve known for years have come out and showed a side of themselves they’d never have known they possessed. Trump didn’t make them racist but he gave them permission to say and do the things that they have.
“He’s never been about the people. It’s always been about him. So it’s been scary times but you just keep the faith. Especially in young people. I’m very proud in how someone like LeBron [James] has used his platform and in her own way Erica as well. With social media and cameras nowadays, even white people are seeing things like George Floyd that they’d have heard about but not really believed before.” So yeah, like King, and with a new president now, he still has that dream.
Eric Favors was at practice when he heard the news, a notification on his coach’s phone alerting him that a group of protestors had stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC.
Three years earlier, Favors and his teammates at the University of South Carolina had been invited to that same building to meet a senator and as he watched the images unfold, he thought back to that trip.
“The security there was just unreal, the amount of checkpoints you had to go through,” he says.
“To hear the protestors broke through that and were everywhere, I couldn’t believe it.” After a year of chaos in the United States, it felt like a tipping point. What had become of the country that raised him?
Favors, 24, grew up in Rockland Country, just outside New York City, though he has long stayed close to his Irish roots.
His grandmother, Margaret Kerr, is from Ballina in Mayo and has lived in New York for the past 50 years.
Favors was a talented thrower and American football player in high school, but chose athletics when enrolling in college. He has since become one of the best shot putters in Irish history, his 19.49m last February breaking the national indoor record and putting him third on the Irish all-time list.
A criminal justice student at South Carolina, he has a better insight than most into the ways of the US system, which have come into sharp focus in recent years.
“I’ve experienced racism growing up and I don’t really want to go into details, but it’s little comments here and there, stuff that gets under your skin, stuff that carries with you for years.” As anti-racism protests swept the country last summer, Favors lent them his full support but did so from home, wary that venturing into crowded places might put his grandmother, who he lived with, at risk of Covid-19.
“Anything that brings light to those situations, I respect it and support it 100%. I have family members that are in jail and they haven’t got the opportunities. It’s tough, growing up you really don’t realise it until you get older. You do more reading, you become enlightened to the situations that are happening. You understand why people are so vocal and angry. Back in the day, without social media, this would never have happened.” As A-list athletes like Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, and Naomi Osaka raised their voice in recent years, some pundits have urged them to stick to sports, which is usually the last refrain of those deeply afraid of change.
“For want of a better word, Kaepernick was kicked out of the NFL and just to see the change now, he’s the face of the (anti-racism movement). It’s remarkable; all the corporations are trying to fight for change.” As a teenager, Favors didn’t care much for politics, being “more worried about riding bikes and playing football”, but recent events have piqued his interest. Does he believe the US is truly more divided than ever?
“I’d say people are more vocal about their opinion. I’m not sure about how divided it was because when I was younger I really wasn’t paying attention to politics, but I see it’s divided now.” Favors has been to Ireland in recent years, retracing his grandmother’s path from the family farm in Mayo, hanging out with his relatives in Dublin. In 2019 he won the Irish senior shot put title in Santry and represented Ireland at the World University Games in Naples, finishing 10th in the shot put. During his time here the one thing he was always asked about was his thoughts on Trump.
“Honestly, I had no opinion. I’m still in university, I’m not in the real world paying taxes and getting jobs, so I don’t really get into the politics, but I see his character, how he conducts himself in the media and he’s basically a social media star — that’s how everyone sees him. It’s a circus.” And with Joe Biden, another man with Mayo roots, now being installed in the White House — alongside the first ever woman of colour as vice president — does Favors believe the tide has turned for the better, with the world finally waving goodbye to Trump?
“100%,” he says. “Anything is better that him.”
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