Sandy Ryan: Olympic Dreams, World Titles & Mental Health

Sandy Ryan: Olympic Dreams, World Titles & Mental Health

For Sandy Ryan, boxing was perhaps inevitable. Her brother Dave was a professional boxer, and the inspiration for Sandy to follow in his footsteps. In a gym at 15, her first fight at 18, and her life in the squared circle had begun.

A world championship silver medallist in 2014, a Commonwealth champion in 2018, and numerous other accolades in a stellar amateur career, and Sandy has been on Team GB since 2011.

But a career in sport comes at a cost, and the Derby-based fighter has recently had an operation to fix a long-standing shoulder problem:

“It’s caused me problems for the last two years. In a fight last year, the shoulder basically just went in the fight. Then in the following fight, I had to have it strapped up and just fight through it. I thought I could manage it with rehab and strengthening up until the Olympics in 2021 and then get the operation after that. But I went to the GB training camp in Turkey a few weeks back and in my first sparring session my right shoulder went again and it was the worst it has ever been, so I knew it was now the time to get it fixed.”

The Olympic dream has long been an aspiration for Sandy, even turning down numerous offers to turn professional to continue her pursuit of Olympic glory. The decision to finally have the operation is one of short-term pain for long-term gain:

“The good thing is I should be back for the Olympic qualifiers in May, but if the recovery goes well I could be back before then. It is quite a lot of rehab, strengthening my shoulder back up before I even get back punching, but I should be back punching next year.”

As governments around the globe failed to deal properly with the pandemic, the virus became more embedded in our society. Cities turned into ghost towns, the emptiness and division, is a painful reminder to a previous Tory-led country. As everything stopped, immediate dreams ended, and for Sandy, it hit her particularly hard:

“When lockdown started I was initially fine. I continued to train but when the Olympics got put back until next year, I just didn’t want to do anything, I just hit a wall. I was just in my room, just doing nothing, not doing any training whatsoever, not eating clean and just in a really bad place. I didn’t want to see anybody and it went on for a good few weeks. I think part of it was the Olympics being put back because I had got in my head it was this year, and I have been on the team for 9 years now. I was thinking go to the Olympics and then turn professional. But when it all got put back it was messing with my head and I just didn’t want to do boxing anymore.”

The problem with depression is that you don’t know you have it, until you are too deep in, making the road to recovery harder and longer:

“I just thought I was very low and didn’t want to box again. But then I had days when I thought I need to do it, so I tried to pull myself together. But then the following day I couldn’t and I hit rock bottom again. So it was like a cycle.”

Often the solution is close to home, admitting there is a problem or being told there is one. Being in denial is understandable, but it isn’t the way out. Thankfully for Sandy, a few choice words from her brother, saw the change Sandy needed:

“My brother noticed, he saw that I wasn’t training and eating clean, but he sort of left me to it at first. But then he just asked me one day, what are you doing, what are you doing with yourself, you are an athlete and you are not training or eating properly. That was the first time I let it all out and I just started crying, I just couldn’t help it and I said I just don’t want to do it anymore. He said are you stupid, you are in the best position, most people would dream to be where you are.”

Those words from her brother helped, and the road to recovery began. A new mindset and an old friend came back into her life at just the right time:

“I got in touch with someone who I used to play football with, Bianca Denham, she does PT training now, and I saw on Instagram that she was doing 8-week transformation classes. I just messaged her saying I need help, I can’t do it by myself. Bianca said train with me, I just can’t thank her enough. She helped me massively, she helped me with my training and my diet, she mixed it up. I am doing one on one training with her, and Bianca will be my fitness strength trainer when I turn over. I was doing different training to what I normally would, it refreshed my mind I think.”

Depression isn’t selective, the toughest people on the outside can be the ones who are struggling the most inside. There can be no signs, rarely a trigger point. Sandy has previously seen the other side of depression, helping her father through similar problems:

“It can happen to anyone, because I helped my Dad through it, I was supposed to be the strong one. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, it can happen to anyone. Every person has setbacks in their life and gets down. Some people deal with things differently, it can affect people in different ways. You need to talk about it and reach out to people, its nothing to be ashamed of.”

The dream of Olympic glory hasn’t dimmed, Sandy is over the worst, and now back to chasing glory in Tokyo next year:

“I’m still focussed on the Olympics next year. Obviously, at the moment I am focussed on getting the shoulder right, but I am in a really good place now, I have a really good structure in place now.”

When I asked Sandy about the prospect of turning professional after the Olympics, her voice seemed to light up, the excitement tangible, clearly looking forward to joining the current boom in her sport. The ambition is evident, no arrogance just complete conviction in what she wants to achieve:

“That’s my goal, I will be turning professional, but I want to go to the Olympics because I have trained all my life for them, it has been one of my dreams. I know the pro game is made for me and my style and I am so excited for when I turn over. I want to win world titles at multiple-weights.”

The issues Sandy has had recently, highlight perfectly, problems with imposing restrictions on people. Strip away normality, remove the daily routine, take away most forms of social contact, people will inevitably suffer from mental health.

They become isolated from society, and little or no thought is given to the people that suffer. Lockdown becomes our new normal, the easy way out, hiding the frailties of a broken system. A cocktail of mixed messages, and missed opportunities.

It should be about the right restrictions, in the right places, at the right time with the right support.

Sandy is one of many who has suffered, as a result of governments trying to deal with one thing, everything else, mental health included, seems to have been forgotten. The awareness of mental health, must never ever stop.

Thankfully, Sandy is now in a good place, looking ahead to what could be a golden career in her sport of choice.

Whatever happens in the Olympics, Sandy can almost taste the start of her professional journey. A bright future looks certain, a tough time of late, but her new found resilience will serve her well in the years ahead.

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