By Daragh Ó Conchúir.
In April 2017, Nenagh’s singing doctor, Mary Ryan launched a CD entitled, The Next Chapter. Another medical professional, Dr Dre had already used The Next Episode, I guess.
Dr Ryan’s namesake, also from Tipperary, would be known for a lot of things but singing, she professes, is not one of them.
It is a rare blank in the column marked ‘traits and skills’ for the Moneygall Mary Ryan, heading into her own next chapter of a magnus opus career that extends to an 18th season of senior summer camogie for the Premier in this evening’s Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Champions Group 1 opener against Clare at The Ragg (5pm throw-in – Live on Tipperary Camogie YouTube Channel).
She patiently listens to the questions she has been fielding a few years now, as to what the motivation is for someone who will be 35 at the end of the year to be still doing this, particularly with the demands and commitment required having increased immeasurably since she hit her fourth decade, not to mind from when she was a youngster with a tongue stud and not a care in the world only to puck ball.
Anyone trying to track Ryan down now will realise very quickly camogie is just one element of her life. A process development engineer with Boston Scientific in Clonmel, Ryan is also a sports, performance and personal development coach, having just graduated with the latter qualification from her most recent return to third level education last month. That means she works with schools and clubs but also with individuals. This has now been incorporated by her bosses into the workplace too.
So between it all, most hours are covered. It is easy from the remove of a couch, or the stand, to wonder if someone would want to do other things in life that they might be missing out on or had to put on the back burner due to their commitment to the high performance environment. But that is attempting to put our perspectives on people we don’t understand.
“If it was easy everyone would be doing it,” smiles Ryan through a laptop screen. “It’s just part of my make-up, part of my routine. Even when you are going back to college or you are starting work, that is part of what you do. You are still thinking about what evenings will we have training and how is the season going to be run. You are still planning around that. I’d say most girls are similar.”
Tipp have made giant strides in the past five years and are now seeking a signature win to continue that, having gone very close against eventual victors Galway and Kilkenny in Championship and two National Leagues the past 18 months but fallen just short. Reaching a national final or winning a major medal is a target, and something they feel capable of now, but it isn’t why Ryan is there.
“People will say we’re getting closer but at the same time, if you said to someone, ‘You are not going to win anything this year,’ would they stop playing? Probably not. You are still trying to get out there and perform and improve yourself. I don’t think you would find many players who would just throw in the towel if you said, ‘You are not going to win a medal at the end of the year.’
“I do enjoy that process of training, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with the game. The game has changed massively over the years and it is a challenge and you do get a land when a young one comes in and is legging it around the place. (Laughs)
“And then I have been lucky to avoid anything that kept me out long term. It’s not easy but it’s manageable keeping up with the game, managing niggles and as long as the enjoyment outweighs that sort of thing.
“I enjoy looking after myself, I enjoy even… I was going to say I enjoy recovery, I suppose that’s a daft thing to say. I enjoy that whole process. We’re heading into a few weeks of games now. You know it’s going to be game, soreness, recovery, game. I enjoy that process. And it is hard. There will be times over the next few weeks where I will be cursing myself for one thing or another. But if it was pulled from me tomorrow, I know I’d miss it so I enjoy it while I can.”
It’s not as if Ryan is hanging on by her fingernails. She belatedly won her first All-Star two years ago in the full-back line, having also been nominated in the half-back, midfield and half-forward divisions over the years also. She was nominated again at the end of last season, having been named Munster player of the year.
When she was brought into the panel first in 2005, Tipp were reigning All-Ireland champions. She had a tall reputation, having played at every underage level for the county and been named on the first Colleges’ All-Star team in 2004 alongside the likes of Cork trio Rena Buckley, Briege Corkery and Anna Geary, Wexford’s Ursula Jacob and Mary Leacy, and Kilkenny’s Jacqui Frisby.
Tipp lost the All-Ireland in her first campaign and Ryan came on as a sub on their last appearance in a decider in 2006. The team’s fortunes declined thereafter but Ryan became established as an ever-present bastion. The loss of competitiveness grated initially but she began to develop an alternative view over time, making her an excellent captain along the way as many of her current teammates were blooded over the past decade.
It’s about the journey rather than the destination for Ryan. That isn’t defeatism. Eking that last drop of potential from herself and her colleagues is Ryan’s very essence. When you do that, there is no more to be done.
“As you grow older, you have a different perspective on things. Probably value things more or differently in terms of years ago putting so much pressure and focus on winning and success as opposed to really enjoying the whole process and improving your performance and all of that.
“We’ve had our ups and downs over the years and I think years ago, hitting low points or downs, I probably would manage them much better now, in that you are just gaining perspective on everything. You are playing to enjoy playing. You are not looking to run away from it or escape from it or anything like that. You realise that sport is your outlet or the best hobby that you could have.
“If you asked me that question 10 or 15 years ago (about what I have learned over the years) I would be thinking, ‘Have I learned about my touch? Have I learned about the gameplan? Or learned whatever? As you grow older it’s more how you’re growing yourself, how you’re developing yourself.”
In other words, though you want to win, and badly, it can’t just be about that alone. That’s destructive.
“If that’s the only reason you’re in it I wouldn’t be here 18 years later. Obviously, you’re always looking to get to get to the top. Obviously, we would love success or strive for success. There’s always going to be hardship. I know it is a cliché but definitely you are trying to enjoy the journey as opposed to the destination. The journey could stop any minute unbeknownst to you. So enjoying it while you’re on it.”
Camogie’s evolution as a high-performance sport is undoubtedly a factor in Ryan’s longevity.
“A huge part for me, and it’s probably not for everyone, is learning the whole background of that. I’ve been that annoying player asking the S&C coach why we’re doing this or that. There’s a few of us there who will probably be like that, you are looking to understand how you improve yourself. Even going back to nutrition. Even your whole wellbeing and mindset, getting support in those areas. Over the years I’ve enjoyed learning all of that.”
Getting called up to participate in an AFLW trial a few years ago was an opportunity to expose herself to a different elite sports setting. She hadn’t played football in 15 years or more but wasn’t going to turn down the chance to have a peak under the bonnet of an environment like that.
The tangible dividend for more than half a lifetime now at the highest level doesn’t appear to be much to those who deem success in terms of silver baubles but Mary Ryan would never measure it that way. That said, the All-Star, when it came, was highly valued.
“I did feel proud of it if I’m being honest… With the support that I got through friends and family and locals in the club afterwards, it might have been support that I might not have been aware of prior to that. When something like that comes up and is in the media and people are reaching out to you with such kind messages and kind words. I did feel proud of it, yeah.”
Few have been more deserved