Inside USD

Ryan Shelton: Renewed Through Rowing

Friday, October 18, 2013

Dreams are big and powerful. Ryan Shelton’s dream, playing college football, consumed him for eight years.

“It was my one focus,” he said. “Everything I did, playing high school football, running track, playing JC football and training as a wide receiver, was dedicated to getting faster, stronger, better.”

Dreams are certainly good to have, but most come with another side. Attaining them rarely comes without some kind of struggle. When this happens, tough decisions are made: Go forward or start anew.

Shelton’s dilemma came soon after he transferred from Rancho Cucamonga’s Chaffey College. He arrived at USD in fall 2007 and was eager to fulfill his dream. Instead, he suffered a serious left shoulder injury during a Torero practice. It kept him from playing and forced him to watch and there wasn’t much he could do about it.

“When I got injured, I’d be in my dorm room and I’d hear (the football team) practicing. I’d think to myself, “I’m supposed to be out there with my guys, so why am I sitting here, by myself?’”

As his football dream suffered and the shoulder pain a constant reminder of why, a new dream — to represent the United States rowing team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil — was just about to get started.

Shelton was in the Torero bookstore shopping for textbooks when USD Men’s Rowing Assistant Coach Dave Janiak saw the can’t miss 6-foot-7 student.

“You’re tall. Do you play sports here?” Janiak asked. “Yeah, kind of,” Shelton replied.

Shelton’s answer seemed to convey that his enthusiasm for playing football, due to the injury, waned. The discussion continued, an invitation to attend practice was soon extended and before he knew it, a new path opened.

Crew athletes thrive on physical and mental conditioning, speed, endurance, technique, teamwork and more. But as a sport with a niche following, Shelton also needed to overcome his initial reaction: “When I first tried it, I thought ‘this is really boring.’”

Thankfully it didn’t last long. Shelton soon confirmed what Janiak and veteran USD rowing coach Brooks Dagman had seen in him — “he had the raw athletic talent for it,” Janiak said — and through training and being in tune with what he was doing, success could follow.

“It became clear, pretty quickly, we were dealing with a remarkable person,” Dagman said. “He’s one of those athletes you see and you just know. He’s one of those athletes who is just that good. He’s on a different level.”

The one thing Shelton didn’t have much of, though, was time. Shelton was a Torero rower for only 1 1/2 years. He was part of the 2009 Toreros’ successful run in the national championships. Shelton, along with Shane Farmer, Ryan Boufford, Zach Barr, Andrew Maffey, Tyler Combs, Lambert de Ganay and Connor Witt, helped the program record its first-ever national ranking (18th) in the varsity 8-man event.

This quick success and a supportive atmosphere inspired Shelton in multiple ways: “It completely changed my direction in life. Rowing was something I’d never thought about before. I never watched it growing up or anything. But thanks to the relentless pursuit by Dave Janiak, I tried it and something about it just fit. I made friends who, for me, will be friends for life. It was a family atmosphere. It was a very happy time for me, even though my time in it was so short.”

Combining his positive experience and graduating with a degree in business finance, Shelton was motivated to train for a spot on the U.S. national rowing team. No other Torero male rower had done it before. Making it and having a shot at the 2012 Olympics in London was suddenly his goal, but Shelton was battling others with the same desire, same goal and most had more experience.

He moved to Oklahoma to train. Three times, he went for it. Each time, he missed. Facing again the reality of what can happen when chasing a personal dream, this time, Shelton chose persistence.

“The misses just fueled the fire,” he said. “I took four days off after the last one (in 2012), but I’m too high-strung to sit around for any more than four days. I was determined to make the national team. After those four days, I started training again.”

In 2013, it worked. Competing in the quadruple scull with three others from the California Rowing Club, they qualified for the U.S. team. They then competed at August’s World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea. Shelton, Hans Struzyna, Andrew Gallagher and Derek Johnson placed 13th overall in the latter, but their time in a competitive field wasn’t bad. Shelton soaked up the experience and said he understands about building each day toward the ultimate, three-years-away goal of competing in an Olympics.

“It’s constant learning,” he said. “I’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, there’s so much upside potential, but I know I have a long way to go. I learn from coach to coach, race to race. I’m also trying to focus on enjoying what I’m doing.”

Shelton was smiling and happy this past weekend when he visited with friends and alumni at last week’s USD Homecoming event for the men and women’s rowing programs at its boathouse facility in Mission Beach.

Dagman had Shelton share his USD and national team experiences with current Toreros, parents and alumni. He put together a photo slideshow of his travels to Chungju and Seoul, South Korea, and to Lucerne, Switzerland. He mixed in fun photos and stories about scenery, people, food and even bugs. He was humble and eager to give back to a program that embraced him.

And now, given his national team ascension, he’s hoping that what he’s done will motivate current Toreros who are formulating their hopes and dreams.

“I hope this causes a domino effect,” Shelton said. “I know this is a position in which a lot of people might look up to me, whether I want them to or not, but I try and lead by example. I thank everyone for the support because I definitely didn’t do this on my own. I hope it helps USD bring in more recruits. I hope it lights a fire under the guys. I think it brings some pride to the program. Having this kind of responsibility is not a problem — I welcome it, especially because it also helps me strive to be a better person and do the best I can.”

Shelton, indeed, is living the dream.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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