Quick quiz: Who runs on the field during every Australian Men’s Sevens game, goes to all the tournaments and the training sessions but is not a player?
This person works hard around the team and within the team but is rarely noticed, unless of course you’re 11 year old Zoe Ryan who, at the Sydney round of the World Rugby Sevens Series in February, held up a sign in the crowd which read – ‘Katie Ryan is my mum!’
As Katie Ryan reflects, this of course meant very little to anyone who read it – except her.
Ryan is the physiotherapist for the Australian Men’s Sevens team and while she is not meant to be noticed in the frontline of battle, she is nevertheless a crucial cog in the workings of the men’s national team.
Her career has seen her go from working in the Sydney club system, to the NSW Academy and with the Waratahs. She has travelled to Spain with the Wallaroos for the World Cup, and runs a business. She added on-call treatment of the Sevens national team to her portfolio through the ARUs National Academy, but once the fully professional and centralised setup was created at Narrabeen, she took the unexpected opportunity offered to work fully within the unit and has not looked back.
Never strapped for family time
In the early days of family life Ryan’s husband (also a physiotherapist) had the opportunity to travel with various teams including the Wallabies while she held the fort at home working locally, managing a busy and varied workload.
“When I worked at the Waratahs it was refreshing to come back into the clinic and treat people that weren’t necessarily elite athletes. That enabled me to still work part-time for the Academy, have my kids and run a business with my husband. NSW Rugby were fantastic -- my kids would come in prams, be in the corner (while I strapped ankles) and they would come out to the training fields. When I worked in the clinic they would come and play on the floor, play with patients and that sort of thing,” said Ryan.
She is someone who a lot of people would perhaps label as a ‘Superwoman’, but Ryan dismisses this cliché saying she does no more than a lot of other working women -- it’s just a matter of good communication and organisational skills -- in other words, the ultimate juggling act.
“Mad juggling -- we have two physio practices: one of which is a private clinic at Narrabeen at the Sydney Academy of Sport where the Sevens (unit) is also based; the other is in Pymble. Andrew is physically in both practices during the week, so at least we get to see each other sometimes,” joked Ryan.
She is quick to add that the organisational strength is Andrew’s -- a trait they could not survive without.
“He is incredibly organised and together with my mum and his parents -- we couldn’t do it without them. My husband plans well and I go as I go,” she laughs, “he is incredibly organised and the kids are great – they’ve adapted very well.”
It’s a busy life with three children – Zoe (11), Ollie (9) and Alexander (7), two physiotherapy practices and being the physio for the men’s national team. But Ryan admits it works well. When the children were little, her husband took the opportunities offered and travelled with various teams and then when this opportunity for Katie came up, the roles reversed. But with the requirement for her to be away from home for at least ten to twelve weeks over a six month period every year during the World Series plus any other additional tournaments, she says it is definitely a team effort.
“There’s just no way I could do this without what he does at home. I don’t know how anyone could do this without having that support network – I couldn’t. So I’m really pretty blessed in that respect.”
As for the children, Ryan is grateful for the evolution of technology.
“The digital age has kept things ticking over. I can talk on the phone every afternoon and I think that keeping in touch, certainly with them, has made a difference: it doesn’t seem like I’m really that far away,” she said.
In response to a question about being a female in a male domain, Ryan pondered the idea then states it has just simply never been an issue for her and that there are actually quite a few women in her line of work in rugby, some of whom have not just been mentors but have paved the way.
“Coming into rugby, there were some female physios there so they had set the standard and were incredibly professional."
"I haven’t had any problem I guess at any level -- it’s never been an issue,” she said, but then added “It probably (also) depends on your management team. Our current management team are absolutely fantastic -- you’re not treated any differently.”
Being the only female on the staff of the Men’s team means Ryan in fact offers a balance which may not be essential to a team dynamic but is certainly beneficial for this particular team -- by all accounts a close-knit unit whose strength comes from the close relationships and understandings within the group.
Ryan’s job almost never stops when on tour.
She runs out on the field ten times a game on average -- tending wounds, checking injuries and running drinks -- and can never take her eyes off the action as she crouches on the sideline.
Add to that the pre-game and post-game treatments, non-game day training sessions, individual specialised sessions for injured players around training, even monitoring players during and following long-haul flights.
“We travel economy. We have 6’5” guys (like Sam Myers) travelling with their knees pressed up into the back of the seat for however many hours to get somewhere -- (so) there are physical issues. They spend a lot of time on their feet so they don’t sleep (and) so they’re not in a great physical condition when you get somewhere. So there’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done to recover. It’s all those things.”
Fully accepting of the inevitable workload that is part of her job during a tournament, she admits she has had to learn to step away every now and then to ensure her focus and drive remains fresh.
“What I’ve found coming into the Sevens (unit) you are a relatively small group, you’re not a Super Rugby team or an AFL team. There might just be the five of us, sometimes four, and we respect each other. Luca (Liussi – team manager) has been doing it a long time and he explained to me very early on that you’re spending a lot of time working together; everyone needs their space and their time and you’ve got to do it. These tournaments are exhausting emotionally with highs and lows as the weekend goes on and that’s something I’ve had to learn -- you’ve got to take that time out for yourself or you just fall in a heap.”
“I didn’t plan for it but I soon recognised that if I didn’t do it, then you can’t give your best. And I have to say, the players respect that as well,” said Ryan.
Home away from home
So how do you take time out for yourself when you are on the road as part of a team, travelling to different cities around the world with a work schedule that keeps very long and unusual hours?
“At some point you draw a line in the sand. There’s usually a time in the week where, the management team, we all go our own way. What’s been really nice is catching up with the medical staff from some of the other teams,” said Ryan.
“We’re really forming quite a nice group. We tend to try and gather some time over the (tournament) fortnight and we’ll catch up for a coffee -- or not coffee! Sometimes it’s nice to be able to chill out, whether you’re chatting about physio or just life in general. It’s nice and we all help each other out, so if someone needs a bit of equipment or needs tape, we put out the call.”
“It absolutely is a broader family and they’re fantastic – going to the markets (in Hong Kong) with the physios for Scotland and Canada; getting to meet medical staff from Kenya and Portugal or wherever it might be,” said Ryan.
What becomes apparent during a conversation with Ryan is her admiration for the culture within this team which comes from a bond formed out of a shared purpose and long-held friendships.
“These boys are a family and they absolutely put their bodies on the line and they work as hard as they physically can for each other. You should see them when they do their fitness sessions and they do the extra conditioning and if for whatever reason someone’s struggling – coming back from an injury or an illness or something like that – the other boys are out there. They’ve finished, they’re dead on their feet but they’re back out there: they’ve got their arm around them and they’ll run with them. It really is brilliant and it makes you proud,” said Ryan.
“Who wouldn’t want to work with these people!” she adds with a smile.
Seventh heaven in Rio
While the World Series is the current focus there is no denying the Olympics is beginning to loom large with less than 100 days to go.
The players are understandably excited and working hard to be selected in that special squad of 12. But for Katie Ryan there is no selection push – she knows she is going – and she can’t wait!
“Who would ever have thought I would have an opportunity to go to the Olympics. My father worked at the Sydney Olympics; he was a sports radiologist and so the Olympics were a massive part of our life growing up.”
“It is (brilliant). I won’t actually believe it until I get on a plane to go to Rio,” said Ryan.
Back at home base, there is a concerted effort by ‘cultural leaders’ within the unit to build relationships even further, bringing the families of players and staff together socially, increasing the bonds and the sense of culture within the broader team – a value which has not been lost on Ryan.
“What’s blown me away coming to Sevens is that family feeling with the wider squad and (now) what the cultural group are trying to build on,” she said.
The impression you get when talking to Katie Ryan is that she is so invested in the culture, the belief and the work ethic of this team that should any offer come her way -- from any team -- she would politely but firmly decline because, in her own words, “I have the best job in the world!”