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Ryan Maskelyne, who represented Papua New Guinea at the Tokyo Olympics, was born in Grafton. “He’s been coming to the Clarence Valley nearly every year for all of his life, to visit his large extended family here,” says his uncle, Eddy Durkan. Image: Contributed

Locked in at ‘surreal but awesome’ Olympic Games

Geoff Helisma|

When it comes to succeeding at sport, desire is a powerful motivator – and it often makes itself apparent during a human’s formative years.

Grafton-born Olympian Ryan Maskelyne – one of only two swimmers who represented Papua New Guinea at the Olympic Games – first made his Olympics dream public at the 2009 Yamba Convent Beach to Main Beach Ocean Swim.

“He told us he intended swimming for PNG at the Olympics,” his uncle, Eddy Durkan, says. “He was 11 and is now 22.”

Maskelyne first dreamt of swimming at the Olympics as a nine-year-old and, while he doesn’t recall making that statement, says, “It doesn’t surprise me that I would’ve said that.”

He cites PNG swimmer Ryan Pini as his inspiration – Pini was the first PNG national to win an individual Olympic or Commonwealth Games gold medal for swimming: the 100m butterfly at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

At the Tokyo games, Maskelyne swam a personal best time, 2:15.33, finishing second in Heat 1 of the Men’s 200m Breaststroke – a long way short of eventual winner, Australia’s Izaac (Zac) Stubblety-Cook, who set a new Olympic record, 2:06.38.

“Zac is a mate of mine … I’ve raced against him since I came to Australia for schooling when I was 14.

“Over the last seven years we would have raced hundreds of times and I’ve only beaten him once.

“So, to know someone who I’ve competed against – for a little bit we were pretty close [in race times] – who just suddenly got insanely good, lights a fire under my arse and gets me going, knowing that I could do that as well.”

But more than that, Maskelyne’s motivation is primal. “I swim because I love it. I love going to training, I love to compete, I love racing. It’s one of the most fun things ever. I love the pain that comes with it … and I love challenges.

“I think I’ll swim until the day I die – I’ll only be competitive for the next who-knows-how-many years, but I’ll still probably go to the pool and be a master swimmer.

“Every day I count my blessings, that I’m in the position that I’m in.”

Maskelyne touched down in Tokyo on the day of the opening ceremony.

“Honestly, I was overwhelmed for the first couple of days.

“I had my first ever drug test; there were lots of different experiences … almost an overload of senses … it was surreal, but it was awesome.”

Come race day, though, Maskelyne had calmed his inner turmoil.

“I woke up at seven o’clock that morning and that gave me almost 13 hours to keep my mind off racing, and that’s hard.

“You’re excited, you’re nervous, you’re scared, and you want to think about the race.

“I went and had a swim, just a to get a feel for the water … then had breakfast and a bit of a stretch; then I just watched Netflix all day.

“I [do] have instructions from my coach that I need to think about before I get up behind the blocks, [but] I was pretty calm until I walked out onto the pool deck; then everything kind of hit me.

“I was super nervous, thinking about my race, but it worked out pretty well – that’s how I like to do it.”

Maskelyne’s dedication has opened up a world of travel opportunities and fond memories.

“I suppose the most unique thing that I never would have done, ever – like I wouldn’t have even known it was a place – was swimming in Turkmenistan in 2017, at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

“It was an amazing experience … and the culture was so unique and different.

“The only way I can think to describe it now is, I don’t want to get political, it’s basically a dictatorship.

“We were in the capital … and we weren’t allowed to leave a certain area, but we were still in the town.

“We never saw another spectator, or just a civilian, throughout the whole town; it was super weird. “All the buildings were massive white marble with blue stained glass … and gold.

“It was super oil-rich country and, I’d say, if you went not too far out of the city it would look very different – it was something completely different to what I was used to.”

Meanwhile, Maskelyne is upbeat about his time in Tokyo, despite being “stuck in the Olympic village and the swimming complex”.

“We didn’t get to go outside the village but, like I said, ‘I’m locked in’, and even though they were the only places I could go, I still took everything in that I could.”

This is the moment – at the 2009 Yamba Convent Beach to Main Beach Ocean Swim – when Ryan Maskelyne (back to camera) “told the family of his intention to swim in the Olympic Games”, says his uncle, Eddy Durkin. Image: Contributed
Celebrating his silver medal, as a member of the PNG four by 100 medley relay team – Ryan Pini, Ryan Maskelyne, Samuel Seghers and Stanford Kawale – at 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby. Image: contributed