24 Hawkeyes to Watch: Ryan Phelan

Dec. 1, 2011

Worth Watching: R. Phelan

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.


IOWA CITY, Iowa — So far this fall, University of Iowa senior swimmer Ryan Phelan earned his first career Big Ten Swimmer of the Week honor, hit the NCAA provisional-qualifying mark in the 50 free style, and broke records at a pair of Big Ten Conference pools.

When asked about his accomplishments, he replied, “I hope someone on our team beats my times as soon as possible.”

The modest senior has never basked in the spotlight cast on him as one of Iowa’s top swimmers. He views his individual success as a contribution to the program.

As team co-captain for his senior season, Phelan hopes to lead his younger teammates past his achievements. He said watching his success inspire future Hawkeyes would be the ultimate career reward, as it would reflect the “exponential progress” the Iowa program has undergone since he started here in 2008.

“Since my freshman year, I’ve seen massive time drops across the board, and our team as a whole has moved up leaps and bounds,” said Phelan, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Every year, we’ve broken records; I hope Iowa continues to get faster after I leave. I want to leave the program on the rise.”

With the construction of the new, state-of the art pool facility, and a vast improvement in conference standings, Iowa swimming has resurged over Phelan’s four-year tenure.

He said he has grown right along with the program, and now both boast national-level recognition. Individually, he is a contender for a Big Ten title and an NCAA championships appearance and plans on swimming in the 2012 Olympic Trials. Yet, Phelan said his main goal this year is to help Iowa finish in the top 25 for the second year in a row.

It’s this selfless team-mindedness that got him elected captain for a second straight year. Fellow senior Paul Gordon said Phelan’s lead-by-example attitude has earned him a lot of respect from his teammates.

“Everyone really appreciates the leadership role Ryan has taken on,” Gordon said. “He has always been a big point scorer, so he has had people relying on him. He really wants us to get better, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Gordon noted his team leader isn’t “all work, no play” when it comes to swimming, and that Phelan likes to put dance music in the locker room and “makes it fun” to motivate the team.

This stems from an intrinsic sense of self-motivation that he has relied on to get him through some unsteady times in his career.

Because of Phelan’s tremendous athletic success, few would guess he has health conditions that limit the capacity of two of his body’s most vital tools — lungs and heart.

A life-long asthmatic, Phelan has never let this setback restrict him from playing a number of sports. It did, however, limit him to faster, shorter events like the 50 free, which requires less long-term endurance.

Once he established himself as a “sprinter,” the Hawkeye learned of another “physical limitation” that has probably been unknowingly working against him for years.

Weeks before the Hawkeyes were set to compete this season, Phelan was diagnosed with Superventricula-techycardia, a condition that has affected his heart rate since he was about 16. This momentarily took him out of the pool and into the hospital for minor heart surgery.

Ironically, Phelan is guided by the same muscle that ails him. While he considered swimming at a number of Big Ten schools, he followed his heart to Iowa.

As a high school All-American, and one of the top swimmers in the state, Phelan was “highly-touted” for his accomplishments in the 50 and 100-meter races. Iowa head coach Marc Long said he was impressed by his natural speed, and knew he wanted to make Phelan a Hawkeye “right off the bat.”

“During the recruiting process, we were going after the best fit for our program, and Ryan stood out,” said Long. “He is someone you can always count on for a good team performance, especially in relays. His hard work is infectious with the team. We’re still a young bunch, and it means a lot to have a local kid like him lead this team to the next level.”

This season is a critical year for the Hawkeyes, as it is their first opportunity to show off their new facility before the entire conference as the host of the 2012 Big Ten Championships.

At this meet last year, Phelan helped the Hawkeyes break records in the 200 and 400-meter freestyle relays, as well as the 200 medley. At the NCAA Championships, he earned All-America honors for his role on the 400-meter freestyle relay, which placed 15th in the nation.

Growing up, Phelan said he was impartial to team sports, and he originally dreamt of playing Division I football. It was not until his junior year at Cedar Rapids Washington High School that Phelan began considering a career in collegiate swimming instead.

After scoring for Washington at the state meet his sophomore year, his dad gave him the “reality check” that his talents might be better served in the pool than on the field. Inspired by his father’s insight, Phelan joined the Cedar Rapids Aquatics Association and began pursuing a new dream.

While he admits swimming has been an added challenge to his collegiate career, the health and human physiology major said he eventually figured out how to simultaneously maintain a competitive grade-point average and swimming career. His efforts have not gone unrecognized, as he was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team in 2011.

Thanks to his dual dedication over the years, Phelan will leave Iowa with both his body and brain to rely on. While he isn’t sure where his future will take him, the swimmer said he is confident that the skills he developed, lessons he learned, and relationships he built at Iowa will last a lifetime.