Posted On September 1, 2015 By In Interviews And 1170 Views

Who is Tom Ryan, Really?

Who is TOM RYAN? I’ve known of him seemingly forever as part of the triathlon seen. I knew he was part of the local race producers and what he looked like but that was about it. I’d done a couple of his races, notably Texas Man Triathlon as it was the state championship that year. He had spotted me at the start line while he was on the microphone. He made some welcoming comments and gave everyone a brief introduction of me, which was nice. I won the master’s category and went home happy.

We had occasionally shaken hands when meeting, which was rare. He seemed nice, but focused I noticed. Not a bad thing as a triathlete or race producer. But what about the rest of him. He could be quiet and distant, I thought. Hard to know. Maybe vague.

I’ve arrived a little early at the Las Colinas Marriott to take pictures of the elusive Tom Ryan for this story. “Can I send you a selfie?” he emailed earlier. I grab a complimentary copy of the Dallas Morning News and take a seat on the sofa. The headlines are about GOP debate. It’s Friday, August 7 at 11:00 am.

I’ve already checked out the space on the patio where we’re supposed to shoot. It’s already 96 degrees. The sun is bleaching the color out of everything it touches. Tom would look like a ghost. Instead, I seek out the dark and shaded spots.

When he arrives, his mind is already ten steps ahead of me. His brain is a whirl with thoughts and ideas, things to do and places to be, stuff to tell me and to tell other people. One can tell immediately, this man gets no rest from his thoughts, angels and demons, victories and regrets. Though I suspect the “past” doesn’t get first billing in his cinematic mind, I’m willing to bet it plays right next to “present” and “future” into one surround sound 3-D extravaganza.

He’s raised two daughters, 17 and 22, and been self-employed since he was 18. “My daughters are happy, strong, and confident young ladies.” He’s tall, 6’ 1”, 56 years old with brown hair and blue eyes that match his t-shirt, and has only slight wisps of grey. He shops at H&M, a fashion store in the mall. He has a trim and fit physique, as someone who watches what he eats and continues to exercise at least at a moderate level. Working out to him means, “I can eat guilt free every day! I hate working out. I never felt inspired or needed inspiration to workout. I’ve always just done it. But love the feeling of being done!”

After only a few minutes of pleasantries we head outside and begin shooting. Tom goes right into high animated mode. He’s everywhere at once, hamming it up for the camera. There’s no stopping him, nor do I want to. He’s fun to photograph, non-stop moving, chirping about this and that. This is a side of him I’ve never seen nor heard about. His Phast Times News interview will set the record for the fastest time between agreeing to a profile, to print.

When it all came together for this story on Tom, he was preparing to launch a new campaign about mental illness. This story then, will coincide with that launch.

“For years, I’ve always wanted to bring a charitable cause to life! Now, it is time! I am launching, NOBODY’S NORMAL (NN), ‘An Uprising for Those Affected by Mental Illness.’ The image or perception of the mentally ill is often times depicted as lost and hopeless. I can assure you that is NOT the case with ‘Nobody’s Normal!’ NN believes the overwhelming majority of mentally ill are smart, hard-working, and vibrant people living rich, productive lives!”

He is putting the final touches on his book, he says, titled, “7 Ways to Kick @#! with Mental Illness.”  “What you don’t know about me is I LOVE creating an idea, a vision, and bringing it to life!”

That’s been evident with all that he’s accomplished with Dallas Athletes, The Club, and Dallas Athletes Racing, with DAN JONES, his “equal biz partner.” “I am proud of the businesses I’ve built.” It’s been 15 years for The Club where people get together and train, and 14 years with Racing, the mechanism for organizing races. When I asked what his title was, he answered, “Useless figure head.”

“For ten years, when I was heavy into Dallas Athletes, the club, I would workout with 200-300 people a week! For the past couple of years, I train by myself or an occasional bike ride with KELLY GALLAGHER.”

Tom is anything but conventional. He doesn’t just think outside the box. He lives outside the box keeping it in full view so as to not be trapped by it. Even as a child he knew he saw the world differently than the majority. Nine times out of ten, he saw or sought out possibilities. Road blocks and the word “no” didn’t exist in his world. Everything and anything was possible.

But what would one expect from someone whose hero growing up was The Flying Nun. “Sister Bertrille could be relied upon to solve any problem that came her way by her ability to catch a passing breeze and fly.” More typically, he also worshipped Superman, Batman, and Jim Palmer, the last being more famous for his briefs commercials.

Conversely, he was very afraid of Barnabus Collins from Dark Shadows, “a fictional character, a featured role in the ABC daytime serial, which aired from 1966 to 1971. Barnabas is a 175-year-old vampire in search of fresh blood and his lost love, Josette.”

Rounding out Tom’s personality and influences, he lists his favorite rock band as TAYLOR SWIFT, followed by Stevie Nicks, and Jackson Browne.

But how did he come to be such a big player in triathlons in the Metroplex?

He was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, May 7, 1959. He has two brothers. His mom is a nurse. He survived Catholic school at Cathedral High School and graduated Creighton University (Omaha, NE) in 1983, the year the PC was created.

His interests were sports and human behavior, he says. Now how many grade school kids do you know who would say that? Human behavior? Really? Answer: not many.

He took part in the normal activities, football, baseball, and basketball. But there was also swimming. That wasn’t normal. After all, who wants to jump into cold water at six in the morning when there’s snow on the ground outside? Regular people don’t. They retreat to their couch or bed with some warm coffee after sleeping in as late as possible.

Not Tom. Oddly enough, he took to the butterfly stroke as the one to excel in. “While other styles, like the breaststroke, front crawl/freestyle, or backstroke can be swum adequately by beginners, the butterfly is a more difficult stroke that requires good technique as well as strong muscles. This swimming stroke evokes more social and political questions than the other three combined. Questions like – Who invented this thing? What were they thinking? And, do I really have to swim this? Arguably the most elegant stroke when done properly, butterstruggle in its worst form is a sight to be unseen.” – Davis Aquatic Masters. Tom claims he did it by default, and since there were not many who did it, he usually did well. The real reason why he started swimming in the first place was for the summer fun.

It wasn’t until his early 20’s that Tom started running. But, like swimming, it wasn’t to compete. It was just to be and feel fitter. So off he trotted.

Last was the bicycle for this budding triathlete. He began this discipline in his late 20’s. This he did start doing so he could compete. …At a triathlon. He was turned on by Dave Scott, the undisputed champion of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon World Championships with six wins (1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1987). He was so dominant his nickname was, “The Man.” Tom, remember Tom? Tom began following Scott and he was inspired to enter his first race at Farmers Branch. (The venue off 635 and Luna Road behind the Omni Hotel was closed after a swimmer drowned and has never been re-visited by triathlon again.)

Over time, he got better and better at triathlons, eventually doing a 12-hour Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile marathon). He got his time down also in the Olympic distance triathlon (1 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 10K run) to 2:20:00. “The sprints always varied due to various distances.” Tom has no races scheduled for himself for this year or next.

He’s had his share of lingering injuries: IT band issues, lower back, groin, and compartment syndrome in his calf.

Currently he swims six days a week, runs 30 minutes every other day, and strength trains four times a week for 30-minutes. Long term he says he’s reached all of his goals, and now just plans to stay fit.

“I have found I am always the most under-trained athlete regardless of the distance! With each Ironman I did (4), I trained less and less. I have never done a pool workout longer than 2500-yards, or an open water swim longer than 45-minutes.” The swim for Ironman is 4,224 yards and takes most people well over an hour to complete. “In my final three Ironman triathlons, my longest ride was 80 miles, and my longest run was 90 minutes.” The bike distance for an Ironman triathlon is 112 miles and generally takes people between 5 ½ to 6 ½ hours to finish. “With each Ironman I did over the past 20 years, I got faster with LESS training! All other distances, I never really trained specifically for that distance. I just stayed fit and gave it a go!” This all suggests some natural ability.

Tom knew he was pushing the pace once he understood Dave Scott’s “Perceived Effort.” “I have not used a heart rate monitor or had a speedometer on my bike for over 20-years. I NEVER know how fast I am going. I understand my body’s workload.” Tom listens to his body’s signals and follows them.

After doing so many races, he became intrigued with the idea of directing a triathlon. His first one was the May 2000 Coppell Kids and Family Triathlon in Coppell. “I had already started Dallas Athletes, The Club. So I thought putting on a race would be fun! But it’s such a tenuous vocation, where pay is always questionable.” But he continued and propelled forward when the idea for the “Texas Man Triathlon” popped into his mind. The races 15th anniversary will be next May.

I asked him what is his favorite race of all time. He answered, “All of the Ironmans are tied for number one. They deliver the most memories.” Other favorite races are River Cities Triathlon and Texas Man.

He likes Texas’ racing scene, too. “There are plenty of options for the athlete. Always nice to have more people getting into the sport. Competition, plenty of it!”

But he has reservations for the local atmosphere. To be fair, he points out the positive, as well as the downside to DFW training and racing. “In my opinion, I see cyclists on the streets all the time! Running is a visible part of many communities I visit. Wonderful swim facilities have popped up throughout the Metroplex. I think fitness in north Texas is moving in a positive direction!” But, what do you think of the area’s support of triathlons and triathletes, runs and runners, cycling and cyclists, swims and swimmers? “Not sure what you mean by ‘support?’ Other than family and friends attending races, I see very little community support for races. I’ve raced in NY, Chicago, Lake Placid, Los Angles, Hawaii and in every case, the community was very visible. I do not see the same support in DFW.

What about the race directors? “We don’t work with other race directors. Not sure I can add much to this question.”

On July 26, MIKE SEXTON, one of the founders of DFW TRI asked for a meeting with area race directors to decide on a calendar with as little conflict as possible. Tom said he had no idea of the meeting. “I’ve heard nothing about it.”

The letter states: “Dear Dallas/Fort Worth area race directors, How about getting together as a group of professionals, and setting a calendar where we don’t have three triathlons of the same distance the same weekend? Instead of having 100-200 people at a race and losing money or breaking even you might actually make some money or double and triple participants instead of complaining about low turnout.” Tom replies, “We’ve never had a race with 100-200 people.”

Sexton’s request continues. “Understand, it’s an indictment of all RDs, not calling out anyone in particular. They all know who they are and they know their race schedule almost a year out. There are only five maybe six players here in DFW. They need to sit down in a couple months and sort it! Thanks,…Every Triathlete In DFW.”

As documented in The Phast Times News, the Metroplex has multiple running races every weekend of the year. As a result, the talent gets spread thin for a competitive race, the race director has less than the amount of people he plans, and the charity loses.

“How does anyone know if the charity loses? Loses what? In my 15 years of events, I never experienced a charity who lost money on an event.”

This has been an ongoing problem where the athletes lose, the race director loses, and the charity loses. Tom: “I disagree. The athlete benefits by having more options.” As for the race director losing, “The race director better understand a competitive capitalistic market place. At the end of the day, we, the race companies, do not control the market place. The athlete has that control. They tell us by their attendance, what they want. If a race director has a 100-200 person event, they better up their game or the market place will eat them alive! … And finally, again, what charity is losing?”

A big announcement was made that Dallas Athletes had merged with PlayTri about a year ago. An ad was put out that showed both Tom Ryan and AHMED ZAHER, owner of PlayTri, shaking hands and hugging. When asked about the merger, Tom said, “[There] is no relationship with Ahmed Zaher. The merger never got past the discussion phase. Nothing was ever signed. No paper work was ever drafted. PlayTri and Dallas Athletes the club or DA Racing never merged. [There] is no relationship, or association, with Ahmed Zaher and/or PlayTri with Dallas Athletes, the club, Dallas Athletes Racing or me.”

When reached for comment, Ahmed said, “After looking more into it we both agreed that it’s not the right time. Maybe in the future!”

Tom’s favorite things about racing is an eclectic menagerie that sounds like a Julie Andrews song from The Sound Of Music, proof that his mind works differently than most peoples. One can almost hear the song in the background as he goes through his list of a few of his favorite things. He lists “finish lines, 20+ mph average on the bike at a race, holding 6:00 minute miles off the bike, the insatiable hunger after a long-ride, being alone in open-water swims, climbing mountains on my bike, and deep tissue massages.”

Tom just finished reading 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. Currently, he’s reading The Art of War, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, The Glass Castle, and Hard Choices, by Hillary Clinton. “I read A LOT!” he says.

He really enjoys the movies and spending time with his daughters. “Much of my free time is spent with my daughter’s. We are constant companions!”

Currently, “Nobody’s Normal” or simply “NN” is occupying a lot of attention and passion from Tom. Rightly so. He feels personally involved.

“My first diagnosis was in college in the early 80’s. Depending on which expert you choose, the labels behind my name read, ‘Tom Ryan suffers from severe depression and bi-polar disorder … Tom has mental disorders … Mr. Ryan has mental problems and/or issues … Tom Ryan suffers from mental illness … He reaches extreme highs (manic) and experiences extreme lows (depression) … He has all the signs of suffering from SAD (Season Affect Disorder).’”

“I believe mental illness is the #1 challenge in the world. In many cases, it destroys lives, families, friendship leaving millions of people isolated and desperate. Nobody’s Normal is an ‘uprising for those affected by mental illness.’ What I hope to accomplish is the establishment of a worldwide community to change the paradigm where mental illness is perceived as a curse; a weakness. I believe when used as a strength, it delivers extraordinary insight and experience.”

So why this? Why now? “For the past ten-years I’ve looked for help; a community that could help me succeed with mental illness and I could not find one. So I created it! So far, all funding for NN has come from me. Over the next 12 months, we will be raising $300,000 to create a documentary to share my seven step strategy that helps people kick ass with mental illness worldwide for FREE! We also have multiple other fundraising strategies planned for 2016 including a ‘Conference of Crazies’ in Dallas in May!”

Who do you want it to reach? “As Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said, ‘Never think small. Always think BIG!’ Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people either suffer from or have a friend or loved one affected by mental illness. So who do I want to reach? Millions of people!”

Do you think “mental ILLNESS” is a correct term? “Correct or incorrect means nothing to me. I don’t care what term is used as long as it is front and center.”

Any stats you want to share? “I am not a big ‘stats’ person. With respect to mental illness I don’t need statistics. I know. For those into stats, here’s one for you. In my upcoming book, ‘Seven Strategies to Kick Ass with Mental Illness,’ I wrote a chapter entitled, ‘The Beauty of Suicide.’ Here is a portion of that chapter: ‘On average, over 35,000 suicide deaths per year were recorded in the United States during the years of the Iraq war, 2003-June 2014, and Afghan wars, 2001-June 2014. Total military combat deaths recorded throughout the Afgan and Iraq wars combined were 6,848 (source: Total suicides in the United States (2001-2013) were OVER 450,000. Are we getting this? On average, nearly 30,000 more Americans died by suicide in one year than the total American deaths from two wars spanning over a decade! Anything at all you want to share, point out, rave for, or rant against? We would need another newsletter!”

“NN” launches September 1.

Sadly he says he has no heroes now. But does admire Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem, Steve Jobs, and Sir Edmund Hillary. And… “Risk Takers,” he says.

Fifteen minutes later, after we started shooting pictures, Tom and I are done. It is one of the fastest shoots I’ve ever done. Most shoots take 1 ½ to 2 hours. There’s time for us to chat briefly about our lives and then we shake hands.

Who is Tom Ryan? I know him a lot better, now. He is part of an elite (but not exclusive) group who are serving the Metroplex with an athletic alternative that is accessible, doable, and healthy. He’s been part of that scene for well over 20 years. He’s gregarious, articulate, smart, and creative. He’s studious, friendly, and generous, giving of his time and resources. He’s a great dad and special friend with a sensitive heart of gold and a passion for living. Who is Tom Ryan? A neat guy.

Chris Phelan has written, laid out, photographed, and published The Phast Times News since 2001. He’s crisscrossed Texas on his bike three times, swam 5 miles across Lake Ray Hubbard three times, completed three Ironman triathlons, and has represented the US in completion three times, and run with the Olympic Torch. He maintained All-American status for five years and has also biked across the country, 3600 miles in 30 days. The running/triathlon coach has PR’s of 2:27 marathon, 15:40 5K, 3:55 at the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred, and 10:00:52 Ironman. Chris is the only person to have won overall and Master’s at Dallas’ Crosson Dannis road racing series, DRC road racing series, and the USAT/SMW duathlon series. In 1988 he began Dallas’ oldest track workout, 1998 started north Texas’ first treadmill class, and 2003 he founded the world-wide Ride Of Silence. He’s been twice nominated Master’s Road Runner of the Year, highlighted in a variety of magazines and is frequently asked to speak at camps and organizations about fitness. Outside of swimming, biking, and running, Chris has summited several mountains including Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.