Saskatchewan Paralympian Samantha Ryan setting her sights on Tokyo…. 2021
With the 2020 Paralympics postponed, Ryan is already gearing up for 2021
Samantha Ryan is an economics student at McGill University. She has been dealing with all the same challenges as the rest of us during quarantine: busy shopping centres sold out of toilet paper, trouble keeping up with routines, and just wanting to stay in bed all day. Where Ryan is different, is that she is also a Paralympian, and just two weeks ago she was making her final preparations for a second Paralympic bid in Tokyo.
“We went to practice on the Friday and our classes had been cancelled, that’s when it started to feel real – After that practice we found out that trials were cancelled. Everything just changed so quick from the Friday to the Sunday, it was insane.”
Ryan lives in “the McGill bubble,” an area dominated by university students.
“It was so weird it was like a ghost town almost. Going grocery shopping was insane it was just kids freaking out stocking up on toilet paper and cans of tuna.”
Many of Ryan’s competitors and friends around the world are in the same situation, adapting the best they can.
“I noticed on Instagram a lot of people using alternative training styles. I see a lot of people doing stationary bike, rowing machines, going for runs, and being able to bring weight equipment home.”
For Ryan, being at home comes with benefits, at least as far as her training goes.
“I’m pretty lucky because my mom has a stationary bike and a few dumbbells and bands in her basement.”
The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native grew up swimming for the Saskatoon Goldfins, her hometown club. Swimming out of Saskatoon, Ryan went on to qualify for Rio in the 100m butterfly. At the games, she continued to improve and went on to finish fifth in the final. Since then, Ryan has been a mainstay on the Canadian team and one of Saskatchewan’s most successful athletes.
Thinking back to 2016, Ryan still has a hard time letting it sink in.
“I think I was 17 at the time and making the team was my goal [for] that meet and actually qualifying for the team was just such a surreal experience. They sent out an email saying, ‘oh you have been selected for the Rio Paralympic Team’.”
Reflecting on her own games, the most memorable experience is one that Ryan can’t quite explain: “the buzz.”
“It was awesome. Multi-sport games are my favorite thing because in the village you see all the different countries and all the different sports walking around the village, doing their own thing; everyone’s preparing for their events and it’s just such a buzz that goes around. Everyone’s so happy to be there and excited to perform the best they can. I remember my very last race, touching the wall and thinking ‘that was my Paralympic experience, that was it’.”
Ryan did not merely compete in the finals of 100m butterfly, she placed fifth, tantalizingly close to a Paralympic medal.
“I wasn’t disappointed with my results because I knew I’d left everything in the pool, I’d put in the work and done the training and I’d really gave it all I had.”
Although she just 0.9 seconds away from a medal, for Ryan, the Paralympic final was all about experience.
“It was my first experience and honestly the nerves in the ready room is something different. You are surrounded by the best swimmers in the world in that event and just being next to them was pretty overwhelming.”
While Ryan isn’t disappointed with that result, she is now a seasoned competitor, not the nervous 17-year-old she was in Rio. Bettering that result is one of her biggest goals going forward.
“I was happy with my race, but I definitely left there feeling super inspired and wanting to get back to work right away.”
Work she did. After 2016, Ryan relocated to Montreal from Saskatoon to join the National training center. While there, she enrolled at McGill University to complete her post-secondary education. She was still in Quebec when the news hit.
“I remember when all of this was going on, I honestly hadn’t even seriously thought about trials being postponed. I knew it was bad outside of Canada, but I didn’t think it would get so bad so quickly here. Hearing that they’d been cancelled and postponed was obviously really frustrating and I was super disappointed just because the last few years all of the training, all of my decisions had been around making this team. At the end of the day, I think it’s better for everybody’s health and safety and it’s out of our control.”
So, what’s the plan now?
“Just staying focused on what we can control, doing home workouts and keeping a routine.”
Ryan jokingly adds,
“For 2021 we have the same goals, it’s just hopefully going to be accomplished a little later.”
This process is not always easy. Even elite athletes are human, and Ryan faces many of the same challenges as the rest of us.
“Some days I wake up and I just want to lie in bed all day because my classes are cancelled, and I don’t have any solid training schedule and it would be easy to do that.”
In the face of these challenges, Ryan leans on the support of her friends and teammates, proving that physical distancing does not necessarily mean social distancing.
“I keep in touch with my friends at McGill and on the National team and it really helps me keep my head screwed on in terms of having these goals still. They really help me stay on track and remember what my goal is.”
Being back home in Saskatoon, I asked Ryan what she thinks about being one of the few athletes from Saskatchewan to reach the pinnacle of her sport.
“It means everything to me. Sport Sask has supported me from the beginning and being able to actually make it to some of the top stages, I feel really proud [to represent] everybody who has supported me.”
“No matter what happens I know that at home those people are still cheering me on and I’m just glad I am able to wear the maple leaf and make them proud.”
Wearing the maple leaf is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and that is what Ryan remembers most about that first Paralympics.
“The thing that got me really excited about the games and that first experience was when we got to Toronto to fly to Rio. Just seeing everybody there for the first time, everyone was there in their gear and I remember that sense of unity. Being surrounded by that is really exciting I think.”