Ryan Patterson is exactly what South African gymnastics needs – a welcome thrust into the upper echelons of a sport that gets to shine once every four years. The 22-year-old South African will be the first male gymnast to represent South Africa at the Olympics in 60 years when he competes at the Rio Olympics in August.
Based in the United States, the Johannesburg-born Patterson has quietly been making a name for himself in an Olympic odyssey dating back to November last year. The final year student at Berkley University in California successfully completed the first step of qualification, and furthermore, finished as the top African performer at the World Championships held in Glasgow.
His all-round score of 82.132 saw him finish 73rd, 10 spots above Algeria’s Bourguieg Mohamed Abdeldjalil. With the first hurdle out the way, the Bachelor of Science in business student shifted his focus to the Olympic test event held at Rio de Janeiro in mid-April.
He was once again up to the task, adding eight hundredths to his overall score which included an impressive 14.533 on floor and vault. It was also his best international showing in seven years.
With the numbers out the way, Ryan had to wait for official confirmation from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. His nomination and qualification was eventually accepted by Sascoc on May 11. Speaking to Saturday Citizen earlier this month, Ryan shared his excitement in between training sessions.
“It is an incredible honour to be the first male gymnast for SA since 1956,” said Patterson, who has dual citizenship.
“Jack (Wells) went to consecutive Olympic Games, so those are some big shoes to fill. I can only do my best and put full effort into training up until the Games with the hope to represent SA as amazingly as Jack did.”
Patterson’s predecessor competed at the 1952 and 1956 Games in Helsinki and Melbourne respectively. Born in 1994, Ryan and his family moved to the States when he was just four. He was introduced to the sport and recalls running around the gym like a typical toddler.
“I don’t have early memories being only three, but I do remember doing the “Mommy-and-Me” classes with my mother and running around wanting to touch all the apparatus.”
The combination of passion and ability was evident from a young age. So it was no surprise when Shirley Watson, founder of the GymKidz movement, found out that her protégé had qualified for the greatest show on earth.
“I coached Ryan in the early, early years. When I heard he had qualified, it brought back really good memories,” said Watson, who first encountered the three year old at Maylill Nursery School in Winchester Hills in 1997.
Coaches JT Okada, Brett McClure and Dave Eaton have since watched his talent unfold. “The Olympics is the pinnacle event of our sport and to qualify means that Ryan has attained a high level of mastery over his sport,” said Okada, who doubles up as assistant Cal Bears assistant coach and South African head coach.
Patterson – who has competed at NCAA collegiate level throughout his university career – is also the first Cal Bear to compete at international level since the 1996 Atlanta games. The dream of representing his country took shape in 2014.
“My coaches and I laid out a rough plan for qualification. As a young gymnast, the Games are always something brought up to when people talk to you, but you never realise it can be a tangible goal.”
Full marks so far. Judging by his scores, it would seem the vault is definitely his strength having made a couple of finals but it is the high bar that fuels his fire.
“I love high bar. It is challenging and scary, yet rewarding when all goes right. Falling also isn’t as bad as it looks on camera.” With only six weeks to go, he is in the process of upgrading his routines but nailing all six sets in the qualification phase is first on the to-do list.
“By doing this, I believe I’m putting myself in a great position to make the all-around final and several apparatus finals including floor and vault.”
With the pleasant also comes the bad and like most, he dislikes the pommel horse and with good reason.
“As a kid I always tried to sneak out of doing it because the basics were extremely tedious, yet necessary.”
Patterson’s trademark element is the Kolman release on high bar which involves doing a back flip with a 360 degree twist.
When not mid-air, Ryan enjoys watching soccer highlights, reading basketball analyst’s blogs and playing various sports with friends. And if he had to pinpoint what he misses most about South Africa besides his family? “Definitely, Nandos”.
Article Copyright Citizen News, Author Tamlyn Patterson