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Patterson will make history as he takes to the floor for Team SA in Rio
- Updated: May 31, 2016
By Mark Etheridge
Ryan Patterson has vaulted his way into gymnastics history with his inclusion on Team South Africa for the Rio Olympics later this year.
Johannesburg-born but now United States-based Patterson thus becomes the first male South African gymnast to make an Olympic side since the country’s return to international competition at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Athens, 2004 saw Zandre Labuschagne and Stephanie Sandler taking part while Odette Richards wore the green and gold in in Beijing, 2008.
Patterson, who sealed his qualification at the recent Rio Test event, has been based in the US since 1998 and recently graduated with a business degree from the University of California (Berkeley).
He shared some of his Trans-Atlantic thoughts with Road to Rio 2016: ‘With the Olympics coming around every four years, people become especially intrigued with gymnastics and, as a young gymnast, I was always asked: ‘Are you going to Olympics someday, Ryan?’
‘It became routine to say, ‘Yes!’ with a big smile, although I was still young and had no idea what I needed to put in to actually make it.
‘I think the realisation that I actually had the ability to make it came in my time at university when a teammate of mine on the NCAA team qualified onto the USA national team. We’ve always had similar strengths and weaknesses and, although not identical, we were very much alike.
‘His huge accomplishment was a catalyst in my belief and inspired me to go all out on my training and push for qualification.’
Patterson already has some ‘Olympic’ experience having been part of Team SA at the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010.
‘That was a huge highlight on my road to Rio and a competition where I was proud to have represented South Africa. I now look forward to another chance to compete for my country at the Rio Games.’
Like most sportsmen there have also been low points in his journey. ‘The hardest part of the journey came in my freshman year at University. We were entering into a gruelling, yet amazing competition season and right before the first meet I was hit with back injuries.
‘At one point it was almost impossible to stand up, nevertheless walk. But through great physiotherapy and a rigorous rehabilitation plan, I was able to recover and actually discovered a newfound love for the sport. It set me back several months in training and is still an issue that I have to deal with today, but keeps me attentive to my body so that I can always compete at the highest level.’
As for the Games themselves, Patterson is both optimistic and realistic.
‘I believe the training I’ve put in over the years, as well as the training plan I’m currently in the process of completing, have put me in a position to have high expectations at the Games. I have goals of qualifying to the All-Around Finals as well as several event finals, including Floor and Vault. It’s by no means an easy task as the best of the best in the globe are competing, but confidently competed, hit routines will give me a great shot.
Patterson originally started gymnastics at a club under the guidance of coach Shirley Watson, who was part of the Team SA coaching structure at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China and at this year’s African Championships in Algeria. ‘From there it was evident to my parents that, firstly, I loved gymnastics, and, secondly, I had a great natural ability for it. So, in 1998 when we moved to the United States, my mom put me in all different kinds of sports but made sure I stayed in gymnastics. From there it took off and I never looked back.’
He’s now coached by Jonathan Okada and Dave Eaton in California.
Watson, founder of the GymKidz movement that teaches gymnastics to a myriad schools in the great Johannesburg area, told Road to Rio 2016: ‘I coached Ryan in the early, early years, he was still between four and six years old and when I heard he’s qualified it brought back really good memories. In my recent times with him on international duties he’s struck me as such a respectful, well-mannered young guy, always prepared to do the hard work in both sport and his studies.’
‘In 2009 my then coach, Ron Bell, wanted to give me the best opportunity to showcase my abilities and set up a plan for me to come home and compete in the South African Nationals. These past seven years competing for South Africa I have been blessed with being able to compete at African Games, African Championships, Youth Olympic Games, World Championships, and the Olympic Test Event. They have truly been my most transformative years and a great gift. The opportunity to come home to compete has been a large part of my success and I look forward to doing my best once again in August. ‘
South Africa’s participation in the Rio gymnastics action isn’t limited to the competition arena. Two judges will also be on duty, Paddy Chadwick (KwaZulu-Natal) in the women’s artistic competition and Jannie Jansen van Vuuren (Free State) in the men’s artistic competition.