Paddy Ryan seeks to nurture the pursuit of perfectionism as Cambridge University Boat Club women's chief coach
After a long, considered pause Paddy Ryan gives an answer to the question of what appealed most when first taking up rowing.
“A pursuit of perfectionism,” he says, as we look back on a career that has now led to becoming Cambridge University Boat Club women’s squad’s chief coach.
It was part of a much more detailed reply, where Ryan deliberated and corrected himself numerous times.
“For me, it wasn’t the competition, it was the poetry of movement,” he expands.
“I grew up within 100m of the beach, so water has always been part of my life and to feel how a boat runs on top of that water, putting it into words is really challenging.
“It’s this maximum control. I don’t know if rowers agree but there is a little bit of ‘how hard can I work’ in finding your own inner limits. Doing something that is repetitive but doing it extraordinarily well.”
For the past 15 years, Ryan has been helping athletes develop their own passion for rowing.
He has been with the Light Blues as assistant and development coach since 2013, and before that was with Thames Rowing Club and London Youth Rowing.
As our conversation meanders like the Murray River through his native South Australia, what is clear is that Ryan has always placed nurturing ability to get the most out of individuals at the heart of what he does.
It appears to stem from his days as a teacher, and that instinct then crossed over into a boat.
Although, maybe the two have always been inter-linked.
Ryan is from Adelaide and, standing at 6ft 8in now, you can imagine that being handed an oar at high school was almost a rite
It gave him an opportunity to come out of the sporting shadow of his younger brother, Nicholas, who is a professional sailor and was captain of a yacht called Shamrock V, commissioned by Sir Thomas Lipton for his fifth America’s Cup challenge.
“I fell in love with it,” says Ryan. “This was my sport and my opportunity to be good at something. I put rowing first, before anything else.”
It was during a period in the 1990s when Australians did not give medals other than gold, and it became a bit of a story of second places.
He was second, by a bow-ball, in what is now the Australian under-23s championships on Lake Barrington, Tasmania, and represented South Australia at the national youth championships.
Winning the Wyfold Challenge Cup for Thames Rowing Club at Henley Royal Regatta was his greatest athletic achievement – “it was definitely confirmation that I’m good at what I do”.
As the major metric of ability remains success, an issue addressed in detail in Cambridge alumna Cath Bishop’s book The Long Win, it leads to ask Ryan whether winning or taking part was more important?
“That is such a tough question,” he says. “I’ve not really had this conversation with many other people, but for me rowing was a way of identity.
“If I was to identify myself, I’m a rower. I think that there is an identity concept in taking part that’s important. I love winning, but I don’t believe winning should
“If you’re winning and it’s easy, either you’re so much better than everyone else, or you’re not in the right competition.
“I think winning easy is actually bad for you – winning all the time is fine, but winning easy is not good for you.”
Ryan makes reference to Bishop’s book as we discuss the issue of development within the process.
The Boat Race carries an outwardly binary result, success to the rest of the world is judged purely on the winner; if Cambridge beat Oxford then they have done all that they need to do.
However, so much more goes on in the background during the short six-month programme that outsiders do not see and, as Ryan puts it, neither club can control what the other does.
“I think that is the lovely stuff – watching someone feel confident in what they’re doing, building belief in themselves,” he says.
“Those are the skills that, hopefully, are the lasting legacy. The winning is the moment, the journey is the important stuff.
“What I can do is create an environment where all I want to do is go as fast as possible.
“As long as we go as fast as possible, Oxford will either be behind or in front and we will learn from the experience – we will be OK in the end.
“If I make the whole journey about beating Oxford and we lose then that will be out of proportion to what we experience through the journey.”
You get the sense that a lot of those beliefs come from Ryan’s route into coaching.
His mother was a teacher at a special needs unit for people with brain injuries in South Australia, and Ryan followed her into the profession.
He had trained as a teacher in IT and PE and, on arriving in the UK, he taught at Spa School in Bermondsey, a coeducational special school for pupils aged 11 to 19.
“It was a really beautiful school that worked specifically with autistic kids,” he explains.
“I did that for seven years and absolutely loved it – it was really good times.
“Wonderful kids, challenging, but wonderful kids. Great staff, people who were just about trying to find opportunities for these kids to integrate into society.”
Having grown up with a Swedish mother and Australian father, who met in Canada, travelling overseas had always been on the cards – and the profession had provided the opportunity to do so.
“I grew up on stories of the world, and rowing was to me an opportunity to go racing in different parts of the world – sadly, that didn’t work out but teaching was the next way,” says Ryan.
He moved to the UK in April 2000, and a month later, on a walk along Putney embankment, had a chance meeting with a volunteer coach called Dave Wise outside Thames Rowing Club.
“He was tinkering with a boat out front, tidying it up and getting it ready,” explains Ryan. “As it turned out, most of the club was on training camp so weren’t around.
“I asked about the club and he showed me around. He was a really lovely guy. Who knew? I’m a life member now.”
The win in the Wyfold Challenge Cup in 2003 was Thames’ first victory at Henley for 47 years.
Further success in the Wyfold was to follow in 2006, by which time Ryan was coach of the victorious men’s coxless four, and they have since won 10 trophies at the regatta.
He had become head coach as a volunteer while still teaching, but that career path started to deviate
Ryan had to do a basic conversion course for his Australian qualifications so was placed at a secondary school in Slough, and given five bottom set maths classes to teach.
You can tell by the way that he describes the experience that it was a difficult time, and it left a bittersweet feeling.
Personal circumstances meant that Ryan made the decision to leave the industry, and he became a full-time coach and boatman at Thames Rowing Club.
Meanwhile, he was also approached by London Youth Rowing, which works to get young people between 11 and 18 years active in some of London’s most disadvantaged communities.
“Henley Royal Regatta is 50 miles from the centre of London, and yet there was not a single kid other than a white kid at that time racing at Henley Royal,” he explains.
“East London is a very cosmopolitan, diverse area so they said, ‘We want you to support us from the high-end perspective. We can do the community stuff, but we want someone, as how do we lead the route through to getting a crew at Henley?’.”
After working for Thames for one year, Ryan took on a full-time role with London Youth Rowing, and remained with them for six years.
“It’s a fascinating organisation. It’s still growing and growing so much that they have just started small projects in three other cities across the UK,” he says.
A particular memory from the time with LYR is the success of a rower called Jordan Cole Hossain.
She won a silver medal as a J17 at the National Schools’ Regatta and had further success at the Ghent Regatta and the Home Countries Regatta.
“It was probably the pinnacle, but there were so many good memories,” says Ryan.
“The number of athletes I’ve seen involved at that time who are still involved in the sport or see me and talk so passionately about that squad, from a coaches’ perspective, that love made all the time worthwhile.”
There is an overwhelming enthusiasm from Ryan about how to develop people both as athletes and individuals. This, in turn, creates crews.
He has always portrayed an outgoing personality, but one that would appear to strike the right balance between an affable nature and a steely determination.
It is an overriding feature as our chat twists and turns through such an array of different subjects and, no matter where it heads, it more often than not heads back to the same starting point.
“Education and legacy are important motivations, leaving a place better than I found it,” Ryan stresses.
“I love it when people experience winning, I think it’s really valuable, but the most important thing – and what I said to these athletes right at the start of the journey – is that we will judge ourselves by the journey we have this year, not by the result.
“The result is the icing on the cake.”
Shaping that destiny is now in the hands of Ryan as CUBC’s women’s squad’s chief coach, and there was another long pause when he considered what it meant to be appointed to the role.
“It was confirmation of trust from a group amongst the alumni including multiple Olympic medalists,” he explains.
“They have put their reputations into this club so to have that trust is wonderful, but also to have that trust of the current athletes is a wonderful place to be.
“It’s confirmation of belief – you believe in yourself for so long, but to have that title is like winning the medal.”
Ryan’s pursuit for perfectionism, however, will go on.