WE’RE sure you knew we’d feature this guy at some point so we decided not to prolong it anymore.
Down to earth, extraordinary at what he does, a great sport, has time for everyone and is a family man; could PNG ask for a better representative on the world stage?
Ryan Pini is a household name in sport not only in PNG but Oceania as well and ranking number one in the world for his strength, the butterfly.
He has also been acknowledged in the highest of honours in Commonwealth nations with an Officer of Logohu award (OL) for his work and commitment as a sportsman.
Born and raised in Papua New Guinea and with his parents living here all their lives, Ryan is truly a part of this country and is exceptionally proud to stand on the podium while his national anthem plays and his flag is raised.
The similarity between the stories of all people who I’ve heard speak about meeting or knowing Ryan is the fact that he has a great, open personality and is always smiling.
This no doubt, is his humility shining through.
Perhaps his most famous swim; one that I’m sure was a defining moment for all Papua New Guineans in sporting history, which no doubt had us all on the edges of our seats, was his 2006 Commonwealth Games win in the Men’s 100m Butterfly where he took gold beating Australia’s Michael Klim. Many PNGeans can tell you where they were watching that race, here’s what he has to say about it:
“I realised the outcome being pretty hard on Klim with the weight of the nation on his shoulders and I respected that. He was an amazingly good sport; he said as we stood behind the medal deice, “This is your moment, enjoy it”. I will never forget it; I have huge admiration for those who can acknowledge defeat and rise up.
In the very first instant I looked around to see that I had won I was in disbelief, extremely happy to have taken first place; I claimed the win by sitting on the ropes (and) taking it all in.
It wasn’t until waiting behind the curtains for the medal ceremony that it all dawned on me, to this day I am honoured by everyone commenting on how they felt, where they were at the time. I feel absolute joy knowing that the race brings up great memories for so many people.
(In between the Olympics in 2004 and the 2006 Commonwealth games) I started to fine tune my goals; swim personal bests, make it into finals, win a medal and hear our National Anthem. I wrote down for the 100m Butterfly that I wanted to swim it in 52.60; I finished the race in 52.64.
I never thought I’d be walking away with gold, while it was the main goal I was focused more on swimming the best I could at the time”.
In 2008 another memorable moment for Pini and PNG when he was the first Papua New Guinean to swim into an Olympic grand final that Pini says is personally his biggest moment.
He came 8th in that race where American Michael Phelps took gold; Pini was one of the all-time top 10 fastest swimmers ever. The race is on permanent replay in the Olympic Museum.
The year before Ryan made the semi’s of the 50 and 100 meter butterfly events at the World Aquatics Championships; going into the biggest swimming event in the world after 7 months of recovery from shoulder surgery.
He says although he didn’t take note of the results at the time, it was a huge turning point that would see him swim into the finals at the Olympics the next year; that proud PNG moment that etched his name in stone throughout the country.
After his outstanding win over Klim in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Ryan was ranked number 1 in the world for the 100m Butterfly event for a period.
He says it was satisfying as he had worked so hard to be the best he could be in and out of the water without much thought of being “the best in the world”.
Ryan’s performance remained on a level into the 2010 Commonwealth Games where he won silver in his specialty the 100m butterfly however in his next big event, the 2012 Summer Olympics he was struggling to recover from training and with energy levels.
Our world class swimmer (although he doesn’t consider himself as such), said he was planning for that to be his last Olympics, with work and having to support his family in mind, but here he is now working yes, and getting ready for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
When asked what is on the horizon, Ryan said he has set his sights on Rio 2016. He has already qualified for three events and his main goal is to better his performance from this year (Pacific Games).
“If I can do that then I feel worthy to represent PNG in Rio, in doing so it creates a lot of motivation to push myself harder in the pool”.
“It was the biggest challenge I have ever had to face.
I had to monitor my body closely as I made my way back
in the water a week after operation against doctor’s orders.
Knowing how my body can cope with injuries and setbacks
I never questioned my ability to perform; at the end
I exceeded my expectations".
So we asked Ryan; why is it that he does what he does?
“I love swimming, I love racing (and training) and the places you go and the people you meet.
Ultimately, as far back as the pacific Games in 99 in Guam, the response I got from Papua New Guineans when I won 1 gold, silver and bronze was amazing. I was so proud to have the PNG flag raised and the Anthem played. To have people from PNG and all over the Pacific say thank you for making us feel proud is the best feeling. That is why I do it, it keeps me motivated; it keeps me grounded.
Through sport I am able to tell a story that is pure and positive, I can be someone that can be a happy memory, a representation of where people call home or be the change that someone might need in their life. Everything I have done in swimming paints a positive picture”.
As Ryan approaches retirement (from elite competition), by this time next year he hopes to give more into charity and have something (charity/foundation) under his name.
Also being heavily involved in sport in PNG and the Pacific, he aspires to be more active in this role and have a bigger impact.
There is no doubt that he will excel in his further ambitions out of the pool; Ryan is no stranger to challenges when it comes to his elite swimming career. He has pushed himself relentlessly to the brink of, and beyond, his body’s abilities to achieve his goals.
The champion swimmer has had four shoulder operations over a period of six years and says the most unfortunate thing about them was that they were all just before a world championship event but surprisingly he still always made the semi’s after 5-6 months of surgery.
Pini recalls the periods after surgery where he always started feeling more motivated than ever, knowing that he would be starting again from square one and had a lot of work to do.
“It used to scare me knowing that I was pushing my body beyond what it was capable of. I had great support which helped me get the most out of my career.
For me knowing how to deal with injuries at a high level has made me so much more appreciative of how strong the body and mind can be” he said.
Due to his operations however, Ryan’s ability to build up the endurance for the longer events (100/200m events) never happened as they would have caused pain and discomfort that he would not be able to handle with his hope of a long career.
Before the Pacific Games in July, Ryan had his appendix removed, only 8 weeks before his races.
“It was the biggest challenge I have ever had to face. I had to monitor my body closely as I made my way back in the water a week after operation against doctor’s orders.
Knowing how my body can cope with injuries and setbacks I never questioned my ability to perform; at the end I exceeded my expectations.
After the pacific games I have even more respect for how the body and mind can cope in different situations, if you really believe you can do something you are in a far better place for achieving goals than if you feel negative about it”.
While Ryan concentrates on his mental conditioning, his coach since 2001 Rick Van der Zant has his back with physical preparation.
“You need someone you can completely rely on to put you in the best form of your life, no questions”, he said about his mentor.
He has had a huge influence on my career; I simply wouldn’t have won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth games (if not for him).
I leave all the preparation up to him; trust in his delivery”.
Training for Ryan includes pool work, gym or physio for 4-5 hours a day in 9 sessions per week and gym and dry land work 5-6 times per week. This leaves any time left during each day for massage and physio.
“The worst part about training was during winter in Brisbane where it often got well below 10 degrees; the pool is outdoors so the motivation to get up and in the water was much harder. I still did all the sessions no matter what as the end result was the aim”.
Regardless of the immortalisation of Ryan Pini in Papua New Guinea swimming and sport, he says to this day he doesn’t consider himself a “world class athlete” even though he has raced alongside the best in the world.
“I feel like I want to be down to earth and on a level to our Pacific athletes, I don’t want to be placed on a pedestal.
Racing beside the best in the world is something I only take notice of after I have raced. I know that when I am behind the blocks I have the same job to do as if I were racing at home in PNG, whether it’s in front of 15,000 people or a handful of parents”.
His modesty is what attracts such recognition as the Officer of Logohu award which he says gives people such a positive feeling; that their work and commitments have been noticed and celebrated.
He also received the Male Athlete of the 2015 Pacific Games Award from the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) in Washington.
“I don’t think I could ever get desensitized to being recognised. It can be someone on the street asking for a photo or giving me a gift, to the International Olympic Committee awarding me for my accomplishments. All of the awards have special meanings and memories.
It is so important for me to remain humble, I want all of Papua New Guinea to be able to realise that they can achieve what I have, that you don’t have to be a superstar and have the connection taken away from the grass roots level. I can race at the Olympics and 2 weeks later race at a small competition back home in PNG without thinking I am too good for it all”.
The Post-Pini swimming era in PNG is uncertain but Ryan says there are a few young swimmers to watch out for who had made waves at the Pacific Games this year including Sam Seghers, Ryan Maskelyne, Savannah Tkatchenko, Tegan McCarthy and Barbara Vali, who Ryan says, all show determination to represent PNG at the highest level.
“They have great exposure and opportunities racing internationally now more than ever with the government helping out with much needed funding, sending teams away”.
Personal Life and Family
When asked if there were any other Pini athletes Ryan said his family is a very active one with most representing PNG in the pool; he just had more of a passion for the pool over his brothers, which is obviously why we got to know him more.
His older brothers are great at kitesurfing and wakeboarding and he says in the pool he would break some of their records while others were hard to get, although there was never much rivalry.
Ryan’s proud family has supported him greatly with what he has been doing.
“I had wanted to swim for PNG for a long time, the best memory I have of that is watching my brother compete in the 1991 Pacific Games”.
Apart from swimming and other water sport, Pini and his family are into snowboarding, skiing and motorcycle riding.
“All the sports I do come from my dad; he represented PNG as a swimmer and was at a competitive level within PNG for rally and motorbike riding.
Snowboarding and skiing is something we have done as a family holiday since I was very young. Now we make it a big family holiday, we can’t sit still when we’re on holiday; there has to be something involving sport”.
Pini describes his marriage to wife Carly as one of his happiest days.
“Carly is one of my biggest supporters, she has given me so much direction and follows me to training and competitions”.
The Pini couple had put off their honeymoon for 12 months while he prepared for the London Olympics in 2012 and a week after the wedding Ryan went to Asia to compete.
Their son Nate was born only 3 weeks before the 2015 Pacific Games.
“Swimming is a part of our little family; it (Nate’s birth and The Games) mounted a big challenge as I was recovering from surgery. Carly was amazing and had everything planned and ready to bring him (Nate) home to PNG and ready to watch his dad race at the games”.
Pini has not always been all a-go with swimming and sport; during his time at university just after the 99 Pacific Games, he did become fatigued and dropped out of swimming for just over a year before getting motivated again for the Pacific Games in Fiji.
“I was tired and over swimming. I think at that age I had been doing it for many years but never really challenged myself as much as I could have. And when all of your school friends are doing other things after school it became tougher”.
I was put off studying by the lack of support from the teachers and Uni that I ended up differing to a point that I didn’t want to go back. Swimming took up so much of my time, mostly travelling at key points for exams and assessments”.
In 2010 Ryan had trouble again motivating himself to train with his body getting run down for months to the point where he found it hard to even stand for just a few minutes making training and a social life difficult.
“I really felt like I couldn’t give any more and as though I was disappointing everyone around me. Family and friends would notice but it was difficult to explain. It wasn’t until I could open up about it that I started to regain motivation and find some direction that would help me back in the pool”.
PNG’s Golden Boy tells us that his parents being here all their lives and he and siblings born and raised here, there is a lot of pride when wearing the PNG colours.
“I love how patriotic Papua New Guineans are. I feel so fortunate to have such loyal support. I take every opportunity to show thanks to those who feel the honour and pride as I do”.
Pini describes the feeling as special when he sees supporters wanting to take photos or shake his hand as they tell him stories of where they watched, heard or read about his swims.
“It’s a moment in time that they go back in and remember the happiness. It creates smiles and tears of joy; that is the best thing I could ever do.
To stand up in front of nearly 1000 people from 205 nations (2015 Pacific Games) was an amazing feeling. Not just for my accomplishments but for Papua New Guinea; we can achieve this level; we can be up there with the best in the world”.
Check out the Senisim Pasin trailer on their website: http://senisimpasin.org