In his first Haverford High School swim meet, Shane Ryan dove in for the 50-yard freestyle, and Haverford coach Matt Stewart just knew. Ryan was something special.
"He beat a senior from another team," Stewart said, "and I was like,'Whoa, we might have something here beyond just a pretty good swimmer.' He just took off from there."
Ryan's rise has been unconventional. After high school, the 22-year-old Havertown native swam at Penn State for three years. Ryan, a dual Irish-American citizen, then moved to Ireland to train with its national team. In March, he qualified for the Olympics in the 100-yard backstroke and the 50 and 100 freestyle, which meant he would represent his father Thomas' native Ireland in Rio.
Stewart remembers Ryan swimming the 100 backstroke his sophomore year of high school, the season he broke out. Ryan had gotten sick with mononucleosis in January or February, Stewart recalled, and the coaches thought his season might be over.
But Ryan came back a month later and broke the state record in the 100 backstroke. He qualified for that summer's junior nationals, in which he placed fourth in the event.
"When he did that," Stewart said, "we thought,'We got a real, real special talent here.' "
A fierce competitiveness is a trademark of Ryan's mentality in the pool.
"When it is time to race, Shane is really one of the best athletes I have seen at getting in that zone," said Penn State swimming coach Tim Murphy, "really getting everything out of himself."
Ryan also takes the initiative to fine tune his technique on his own time, said Stewart, who remembered how Ryan would ask coaches if he could try tips he saw in swimming videos. Ryan always wanted to talk about ways he could improve.
And in a sport that can often become a grind of intense training and early-morning practices, Ryan has fun every race.
"If he was still able to swim a summer club meet and go out and race his friends in the neighborhood, he would still love doing that," Stewart said. "He kind of treats all his races like that to this day."
On dry land, Ryan is known as a goofball, a friendly kid who stays loose and talks with competitors before races.
"Shane enjoys a good laugh for sure. He likes to kid around," Murphy said. "It is part of the game we play. You can't be serious all the time. You have to be able to enjoy what you're doing."
"I always describe him as the killer and the clown," Stewart said. "When he gets up on the block for races, he turns into the killer. He loves to compete, and he loves to race."
Since arriving in Brazil last week, Ryan said he has already made friends with members of the Belgium team, who are also training at the Uberlandia camp outside Rio.
This past year in Ireland, Ryan said, made him think about his swimming future.
"After I'm at done college [at Penn State], I am going to go pro and go for Tokyo 2020," Ryan said via email, adding four exclamation points for emphasis.
Tokyo 2020? For Ireland or the United States?
Ryan was definitive: Ireland.
It is, after all, the country that allowed him to compete in this year's Olympics. The journey involved major adjustments that included a healthier diet, more difficult training and living alone in a new place.
"I needed to do that to get to the Olympics," Ryan said. "It's also great to get the taste of the rest of the world."
Ryan is set to return to Penn State in the fall to finish his senior year. Murphy can't wait to have Ryan back but not before seeing what he can do in Rio.
"If he is on," Murphy said, "it is going to be real interesting to see what he can do with the best in the world."