By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Sean Ryan put together an impressive career, winning an NCAA Championship at Michigan, winning two gold international medals, going to World Championships every year since 2009, and making the 2016 Olympic team after barely missing out in 2012. He’s out in the real world as an engineer, and the proud University of Michigan alum -- twice over with an undergraduate and master’s degree -- explains what the transition is like in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So you already have a job?Sean: I work in Detroit. I’m working for Detroit Diesel, a division of Daimler. I work with heavy duty diesel trucks as an engineer. It’s pretty cool.
2. How mind blowing is it to be in the “real world” already?
Sean: I think it’s more mind blowing that I was in Rio just two months ago -- that’s more (laughs) mind blowing.
3. How is the adjustment going?
Sean: The job is an adjustment -- I’ve never had a job before. I’ve been a college student for six years, and did some research, but never had a job before. This is totally different from swimming.
4. How so?
Sean: Swimming provides a really clear sense of direction, of working toward a goal -- in this case it was being an Olympian. So moving to a job is a little bit of an adjustment. Life is a slower pace. It doesn’t consume your life as much as swimming does. So it doesn’t quite fill the hole that swimming left.
5. Are you doing other things physically or socially?
Sean: I am still working on it. I just moved to the area. I have to start working out again and going to the gym. I took two months off but I want to stay fit.
6. Is it odd being an Olympian, do people know about it -- does the reaction stun you?
Sean: Kind of all of the above. It’s something where people introduce me as an engineer. Then it comes up and (laughs) nobody believes it. I must be the most unlikely Olympian on the planet. I have to show them proof, because (laughs) they don’t believe it at first.
7. How was the water and life in Rio?
Sean: It was awesome; I haven’t been sick or anything. I think it’s safe to say the water was okay for the Games. Rio put on an amazing show. I had a really good time staying in the village, being part of something that big, part of the greatest sporting event in the world.
8. And was Rio itself something special?
Sean: It was really special, especially being at Copacabana Beach with my family. It was a pretty great town. I didn’t do anything crazy but we enjoyed it and had a lot of fun, saw some great things, met some great people.
9. You have really been a big part of open water’s growth here, what does that mean to you?
Sean: I haven’t really thought about it that way. I really enjoyed meeting a lot of people -- all the people I have met in swimming is the greatest part. I guess I have done pretty well in open water. I’ve been to World Championships every year since 2009 so that plus ‘11, ‘13 ‘15, and Pan Pacs both years. The only major team I missed was the 2012 Olympics. So aside from that, I think I have shown a lot of consistency during my career. I got to see the world from it. I learned a lot about the world, and lot about myself. I was our Number 2 guy a lot of times -- always there but not always the go-to guy. You learn a lot about yourself. It was a good career.
10. What about seeing Jordan Wilimovsky’s career from start through Rio?
Sean: It was really cool. To see how Jordan has just accelerated into being one of the best distance swimmers today especially with the likely retirement of Connor Jaeger. Jordan is in a good spot. I tried to help him in any way that I could, to get to where he is now. And I don’t know how much (laughed) I helped, but I tried to teach him what I knew and I learned from his approach, and I have been inspired by his story. He took his recruiting trip (to Michigan before signing with Northwestern) and we met; he was this sort of small, quiet kid. Now he’s transformed into being an incredible swimmer, probably the future of U.S. distance and open water swimming.
11. You mentioned Connor Jaeger, what was it like having your journey with him at the University of MichiganSean: Connor is just an incredible guy, probably one of the hardest working people but also one of the most genuine people, too. Very kind and caring, and works hard for all his friends. It was great to know him and kind of go through swimming with him. We were teammates our freshman year when we started at Michigan, and though he was more in the middle distance group, I took a lot of classes with him as we were both engineering. So from our sophomore years through sixth year (in graduate school) we did almost all of our undergrad classes together and trained together. I shared a lot of moments with him, winning a National Championship at Michigan, but also (laughs) shared moments like “three 1000s red” (set) that we weren’t happy about (laugh) doing. Tough times and good times. He sounds happy back on the east coast now. Seeing him with the (American) record and silver medal in Rio was awesome.
12. You did master degrees at the same time but in different fields right?
Sean: His was in management and mine was manufacturing engineering. The master’s degree was really cool because I also got to do some business classes as well. It’s always great to have a different view point of looking at the work that you do. Our undergrad work in engineering was all math and science, thermodynamics fluid dynamics, mostly learning the theory which you will then apply in your job. With the master’s degree you learn how it all applies in your job.
13. So then Rio and now a big shift in gears?
Sean: In swimming you have a really good four-year program, the Quad, and work toward clear steps, clear workouts, clear everything. Now there is not a formula where you know in the working world that you will necessarily have a good result. In the work world, I’m still seeking that clear path -- and I think anyone coming out of college does that. But I don’t have a four-year plan this time. I know what I want to do but I don’t know exactly how I can get there, because it’s all totally new. I can’t control as much as I could in swimming. And that is also part of the excitement. A lot of unknowns. New variables. Also, realizing that the job is actually supposed to be done while you are at work, not at home or on the weekends -- which is nice, but it’s hard to adjust to that after having swimming be such a 24/7 commitment. In swimming, you set yourself up for Monday by what you do and the choices you make Saturday and Sunday. That’s the sense of purpose I am missing.
14. What a group of Michigan Men you followed and join -- Davis Tarwater, Peter Vanderkaay, about as rock solid as it gets, right?
Sean: I actually need to reach out to those guys a little bit more. I saw Peter once after the Olympics when I was working. That’s definitely on my list of things to do. Those guys are as good as it gets.
15. How much of a role did your family play in your journey?
Sean: My family’s support has been awesome. It’s kind of hard being in Michigan with my family back in Tennessee. But they have my back all the time. I am excited because with swimming over I can get home a little more often. It’s a little easier to take a weekend trip. A vacation day won’t leave you out of shape (laughs) for Monday morning at work. It’s good to have them and be able to have them supporting me and talk to them and see them more.
16. How much pride is there in being a Michigan alum?
Sean: I do feel a lot of pride in the University of Michigan. There are quite a few Michigan alums working in my company, more than there are Michigan State (laughs) alums. So I do have a lot of pride for Michigan. I know that Michigan helped shaped me to be who I am. And I am really thankful for the opportunity we have. America is so unique with our college system being so helpful to our sports development. Swimmers in the States come out of high school, go to college, are seriously encouraged to finish a four-year degree, and I know a lot of countries don’t have that. So I am thankful for that, and that I could swim as a post-graduate where they offered educational opportunities like Michigan did. I was able to get a master’s degree and because of the situation I was able to swim two more years but be investing in my future at the same time.
17. So those big pickups are what you work on?
Sean: We don’t actually have a pickup truck division here. We actually work on the 18-wheelers you see out on the roads, and some medium duty delivery trucks that you see in the city. So it’s a good focus with a lot of exciting opportunities to do interesting, challenging and important work for a lot of good people.
18. Two gold medals competing internationally, not a bad legacy, do you think about that?
Sean: I don’t think the medals define me as much as one might think. I look more at what I was able to accomplish. The two swims I am most proud of in my career, or maybe three, were in 2010 going 15:04 (in the 1500) and broke out on the national level in the pool. Second one was breaking 15 minutes in the 1500 in Kazan (at WUGs) and winning gold. And then in Kazan in 2015 taking fourth place (in open water) to make the Olympic team. Those were three of the coolest swims. I do enjoy that I got the medals, and it showed a little bit of the drive in me. I do wish I had a gold at the world championships in an individual event, but I can’t be unhappy for making it there and doing my best -- I learned a lot every time and it made me better as a person, a swimmer, and as I move on I expect it will continue make me better at life.
19. We all think of Fran Crippen this season of the year, and I imagine knowing him so much better than most, you do as well?
Sean: Fran was incredible. The biggest strength he had was how relentless he was in whatever he did. He was so dedicated. And he never gave up -- not just in a race, but in life. I didn’t know Fran super well, but I did go on a couple trips with him, and seeing how he went from a 400 freestyler to being the best in open water is so inspiring because he had to make that transition all based on his courage and determination, and with Fran those were never an issue. We knew he was headed for the Olympics and gold. Fran will always inspire people who read his story because of his commitment to being the best swimmer and the best teammate -- he was such a leader and that affected all of us.
20. What a group of people you had in your swim career, is that particularly gratifying?
Sean: The group that we have had in open water is incredible. It was always a small group on the trip. The max we ever had was like 10 athletes. So everybody gets to know each other, and we call it a family in open water because it really is that. We have Haley Anderson carrying the torch the last four years, Jordan stepping up. Andrew Gemmell had a tremendous career and is a brilliant thinker and great person. Becca (Mann) is so incredible. Look at Eva Fabian’s consistency and what she had done in life -- she’s another one who was really inspired by Fran. We had Ashley Twichell join the program and did great. David Herron at Worlds, who is something. There are so many who are great, I could talk about them all day. Then Jordan comes along and is a star. Plus we were coached by Catherine Vogt who is as good as it gets and became a leader within the sport itself. She’s an awesome person, too. It was that way at Michigan for me, too. The thing is, winning that NCAA (team) Championship was just a really cool experience; everybody was the happiest I had ever seen them that way, and that was such a great thing to achieve with my best friends and teammates. Our great coaches, staff and advisers -- everyone at Michigan who made it possible for us. Everyone was smiling ear to ear. It was at IUPUI Natatorium but I remember it in my mind like it was a home meet because of all the Michigan support. That is not an exaggeration. We all jumped in to celebrate, and we knew what had happened was something that we’d remember the rest of our lives. And the best part? Those people that made this journey for me are the best people I have meet in my life. That, to me, is what is really cool.