Former Michigan men's swimmer Sean Ryan (2011-14) was a member of one of the program's most successful senior classes, helping the Wolverines win four Big Ten titles and one national championship during his collegiate career. As an individual, the Hixson, Tenn., native was a five-time NCAA All-American and three-time Big Ten champion. Already a veteran of several international competitions, Ryan will once again represent the United States at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, which are set to be held from Aug. 21-25 in Gold Coast, Australia.
Q. Perhaps the toughest area in the sport of swimming is open water, which is coincidentally your specialty. Talk about what open water swimming is?
A. The best and easiest way to describe open water swimming to those that don't know much about it is thinking about the Tour de France. Everyone is peddling in a pack. Sometimes you have people that jump to the front, and everyone else sort of works together to catch them. That's essentially how close you are swimming with each other. Everyone tries to draft and conserve energy for the end. The 10K, which is one of my races, lasts about two hours. Usually that course is set up of four buoys in a rectangle, and you swim around those. It's usually four laps, with each lap consisting of 2,500 meters. Positioning and being able to navigate around those buoys are very important. Time means nothing in open water. It's all about placing and racing, which is one of the things I love most about it.
Q. How did you get started in it?
A. The Masters swimmers that we trained with at my club in the morning were really big into it. There was a four-and-a-half mile, low-key, down-river race in Chattanooga that was my very first experience of open water swimming. I was 14.
Q. A swimmer's training regimen is arguably the toughest and longest in all of sports. How were you able to build up the endurance to be able to swim nonstop for two hours or more in a single race?
A. In those two-hour races, everyone is like, "Wow, you swim for two hours. That's six miles!" Well, I practice for two hours every day, too. The endurance aspect builds up over time. I truly believe anyone in our pool could do a 10K if they really needed to. In a race like that, you have to manage your energy. With some extra training, any distance swimmer could do an open-water race well.
Q. You've swum all over the world in so many competitions throughout your young career and will be at another one this month. To be able to represent your country at such competitions, what does that mean to you?
A. You know; it's a special feeling. To represent your country on the biggest stages of our sport is an experience that's hard to put into words. You get the cap with the American flag on it and your name underneath. You get to go out there and know that you're representing the greatest country in the world.
Q. One of the biggest moments of your international swimming career came at last summer's World University Games in Russia, where you won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle. Talk about what it was like to be able to stand atop that podium and hear the national anthem at that moment.
A. Oh, it was awesome. When you're up at the top of that podium, it sort of feels like all the eyes are on you. It was one of my best achievements in swimming. It was an unbelievable feeling.
Q. You'll be going to another international competition later this month, as you'll swim for Team USA at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. How excited are you to be able to go to that?
A. Pan Pacs is going to be great. As an open water athlete, I've known for almost two months that this meet was coming and that I would be a part of it. I changed my training mentality, which helps me get into a better state for that meet. I'm actually really excited to go to Nationals, too, to see what our guys can do. They'll be more rested than me, so hopefully we can get some of them on that team, too.
Q. Over the last few months, you've been very active in the swimming community, namely participating in swimming clinics both in your hometown of Chattanooga and in downtown Detroit. In comments to USA Swimming, you mentioned how excited you were to be able to give back directly to those communities. Why is that so important?
A. The sport of swimming has a smaller, more tight-knit feeling that some of these other sports. I think it's important to reach out to younger kids and help them try and grow their passion so they can see what swimming can do for them. It's done so much for me. I want to give back and help other people enjoy it as much as I do.
Q. Looking back on your four years as a collegiate swimmer, what was the biggest lesson that you learned at Michigan?
A. Balancing my life. My first year, I tried to do too much in the pool and didn't do enough academically. As I went through the program, I learned more and more how academically challenging this place is and what we're actually here to do, which is the academics. With that focus, it helped me mentally, because you have something else going for your life. It's not just about what happens in the pool.
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