It’s the fork in the road all young, aspiring Olympians must face, but for gymnasts it arrives much sooner, the sport requiring such depth of commitment to reach the top that adolescent life, quite simply, must be shaped around it.
Meg Ryan came to that crossroads in her early teens. She chose gymnastics.
“It’s definitely a sport where there’d be a lot of sacrifices and I think you only realise as you get older,” says the 19-year-old.
“When you’re younger you don’t realise you’re missing out on other things. In secondary school a lot would quit because they want to go out with friends and you either go one route or the other; you ether dive into it or you choose to not sacrifice all those things.”
Ryan dove into it, and after a decade of hard graft, she’s now reaping the reward. In Tokyo tomorrow she will become just the second Irish female gymnast to compete at the Olympics, and the first homegrown one (2016 Olympian Ellis O’Reilly was born and raised in England).
The Cork teenager will be out there on the same floor as Simone Biles, competing in qualification of the all-around, which combines the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor.
Despite her youth, these are skills she’s been mastering for 15 years, her gymnastics journey beginning at the age of four.
In those early days there was never an Olympic dream, just a fundamental joy in doing some of the most athletic, fundamental movement skills of all.
“I love gymnastics,” she says. “I loved what I was doing and it was always important I was enjoying what I was doing.”
She’d have to, given it required four to eight hours of daily training through her teenage years.
That’s the price of being an Olympic gymnast and it’s one she was happy to pay.
Coming from a family steeped in Gaelic games — her father Aidan was a county-winning hurler with Blackrock, while grandfather Fergal once captained the Cork hurlers — Ryan played too during her childhood but had to leave it behind to focus on gymnastics.
Coached by Emma Hamill at Douglas Gymnastics Club, she was recruited into Gymnastics Ireland’s national squad at the age of eight, making many trips to Dublin through the years after to work with their Olympic start squad.
Juggling her training with Leaving Cert obligations was not easy for the Christ King graduate over the past year, but ever since 2019 the Tokyo Games had been a possibility so she had to keep preparing.
Ryan was first Olympic reserve due to her performance at the 2019 World Championships, but only in recent months did it become a reality, with North Korea’s withdrawal opening up a spot in the women’s all-around.
When news of her qualification was confirmed the messages flooded her way, coming from those she knew and many of those she didn’t.
“That’s when it hit me,” she says. “It’s an honour to represent our area and hopefully make everyone proud. Everyone around was so happy because they know how much I’ve given up. They know how much I worked.”
The commitment has long been all-encompassing. In this realm, it just has to be.
“There’s definitely a good few things I’ve given up, going out with friends,” she says.
“I’d have a small circle and it’s peo¬ple in and around the gymnastics world mainly.”
In the national squad, she sees so many others just like her – girls two or three or 10 years behind who are making the same choices she once did, opting in fully to a sport they love.
“For them to know I came from the same place, the same pathway, it gives them a lot of hope,” says Ryan. “They know it is possible to get to the Olympics. It’s more than talent; it’s dedication and work ethic. That’s what got me to where I am.”