The woman behind Ryan
SOMEONE once said that behind every strong soldier, there is an even stronger woman who stands by him, supports him and loves him with all her heart.
And this rings true for someone who allowed her man to travel to the other side of the globe to coach a small rugby nation and help take it back to the top of the world.
He may not literally be a soldier but he commanded a platoon and made section leader out of Osea Kolinisau not only in the recent Rio Olympic Games, but since he came onto the commander’s position in 2013.
Top of the world indeed he has taken the team to, but there is one woman that has always been behind Fiji’s most successful 7s coach, Ben Ryan.
You may have seen her walking around the market trying to get a few vegetables, and she has been grateful that not many people know her like her husband because it could mean longer shopping hours for her like when people see Ryan.
Meet Natalie Ryan, a woman who has sacrificed so much to see her husband achieve his goal but these sacrifices she said she had not regretted once, because it had been returned to her more than expected.
Natalie spoke to this newspaper about the road to Fiji, how it all started and to be finishing it on a high note, it’s something she now hopes that she would not be leaving behind, but something she would return to.
Road to Fiji
Fiji to her was a place people spoke about as a honeymoon destination and never did it cross her mind, even when her husband informed her that he’s been approached to coach in Fiji, that they would leave their families behind to live in that honeymoon destination country for three years.
“I remember when Ben first told me that he’d been approached to coach Fiji and initially I thought it wasn’t going to happen, especially with Fiji being so far away. It was the kind of place people talked about going on their honeymoon. We discussed it and said we’ll just see how it all pans out,” Natalie said.
When Ben was interviewed by the Fiji Rugby Union on the post, Natalie was asleep because of the time difference, it was 1am in England, and when her husband told her that the interview had gone well she said “I was sceptical and didn’t think it was really going to happen.”
But it was on a night that they were out on dinner with her husband’s friend that Ben received the call from Fiji informing him that he has been given the post.
“Then he came back in with a huge smile and said “I’ve been offered the job”! So we ordered a bottle of wine to celebrate and I suppose it still hadn’t really sunk in.”
From then, the decision was made to fly over to this small island nation to see how they liked it and on September 29, 2013 the petite built woman with her ginger-haired man took their two weeks trip.
For Natalie, all she knew about Fiji was that it was on the other side of the globe and the treatment from a Fijian that she has ever had was from her husband’s very own Fiji born England rep — Isoa Damudamu.
“I have met Damu many times and know him to be such a wonderful, kind and respectful man. Ben and I joined him to watch a 15s game, England versus Fiji in Twickenham just before we came over here. Yes I knew where Fiji was on the map and that it was the other side of the globe to England. I hadn’t travelled further than Thailand before and used to be very anxious of flying — so our first trip really was a bit scary.
When Ben accepted the job, the trip she said was going to be an adventure for both of them.
“We decided to fly over to Fiji to see if we like it, on 29 September 2013, on a two-week trip that would cover 26,756 air miles, involve 10 flights (five airlines), visit three countries and staying in five hotels.”
A trip that would take thousands of miles in the air, the weather factor, the time difference, a huge trip it was and Natalie said they took it with an open mind, and the arrival to their destination with the welcoming they received, was something that blew her mind.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but knew that we would give it our all and take each day as it came.”
They say first impression lasts and it rang true for the couple.
“We were met by TV crews, photographers, salusalus (garlands), signs saying ‘Welcome Home Ben’ — it was definitely not something I was expecting — totally overwhelming! The people we met on that trip were so friendly and helpful, that we knew we would be back.”
It was when they had to put in a notice on their home they were renting in back in England and when she had to tell her colleagues that she was joining her man in his new challenge that reality hit.
“The hardest part was telling my family that I was moving away to the other side of the world for three years, my Mum couldn’t believe it.”
So Ryan did what they needed to do to be able to move to Fiji, selling what they could and giving away what they wanted to as they booked their flight.
They travelled to the rugby crazy nation with just some clothes, two towels just enough for them and “a Nespresso coffee machine (it was a MUST for Ben!).”
“We left on Saturday 28 December, ready for the adventure of our lifetime.”
From the fear that always envelopes her whenever she’d be flying, coming to Fiji has even taken that away now, as she said the “bula” smiles has always been very welcoming.
“â€¦but now I love flying, especially with Fiji Airways, whose staff makes me feel like I’m coming home with their friendly Bula smiles.”
Going on tournaments with the Fiji team
When her husband took the first Fiji team to win in Dubai, breaking a jinx of many years of misfortune from the UAE, Natalie was there to witness it.
And that win was the beginning of the raking in of many supporters to the Fiji team from her family.
Like many wives, who would be proud of their husband to have done well, the feeling was just the same for this woman, just to be watching how her husband was giving commands on what needed to be done and how to take on their opponents.
She hasn’t even forgotten the score margin given to Gordon Tietjens men then, by the Fijian team coached by none other than her man.
“I was in Dubai for his first tournament with the team in 2013 and I couldn’t have been prouder. The boys were outstanding on the field and went on to win the tournament! I was speechless when they beat NZ 44-0, in a game that just showed what the Fijian players were capable of.
“My Dad rang me straight after, he was laughing and like me, in shock! His friends had called him too, saying that they wanted to join ‘his team’.
“In our first year, I followed Ben and the team to Gold Coast, Dubai, Wellington, Japan, Hong Kong and London. The second year, Dubai, Hong Kong and London, where I watched them crowned the IRB Series Winners 2015. This year I have been to Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Paris and London (and they won the series again!).”
And to all these tournaments, Natalie makes sure she showcases the Fijian style, so her love for Bula wear grew.
“I now have a collection of kalavata, I arrange to have a new set made for each tournament and we always get lots of compliments.”
So we wonder what it is like for her when her husband’s coached side plays against their own, of course she gets comments for supporting Fiji instead of England, but this is someone who will not let her husband go alone, even if it means going against their own.
“Since we left England and started this Fiji journey, I support Fiji 100 per cent. I’ve been verbally abused by British supporters, some have asked “but you’re English, why aren’t you supporting England” and to the polite ones, I’ve explained why.
“And they’ve subsequently decided to join my ever growing Fijian Supporters Club in the crowd. The England team have some very nice players, a number of whom were at our wedding in 2009, including James Rodwell — and even Chris Cracknell who now coaches the Fijiana team,” Natalie said.
Just like the players’ wives and partners including families who did not speak to the players when their mobile phones were taken in until after the final game in Rio, Natalie also gets only a few words from her man.
Not because he doesn’t care, but because she doesn’t like to be another cause of worry to her husband in what they wanted to be the highlight of their career in Fiji.
So she doesn’t talk to him on a daily basis but they have faith in each other knowing that no matter how far they are apart, they are both doing well.
“I might get the odd message, but not daily, I don’t think I spoke to him for about a week during the Olympics. I know he’s working and when he can, he’ll contact me and I’m always here.
“He has so many things to worry about and I don’t want to be one of them, so I might message him every now and again, but other than that I give him space.”
And she said the last message she got from Ben was after their quarter-final slight win over Gordon Tietjens’ NZ side.
“The last message I received was just after their NZ game “it’s been quite a good day” then after the final “It hasn’t really sunk in yet! Feels a bit surreal”; both messages are very typical Ben, humble and not boastful, but that’s the man I married.”
So why didn’t she go to Rio like in the tournament’s that she has been to with Ben, Natalie said this was the time for the man she married, the love of her life.
“I didn’t go to Rio, mainly because this is Ben’s time. I want him to just focus on the job in hand and not worry about me.
“My home is in Fiji, so that’s where I wanted to watch the games. I watched them at home alone, mostly in my pyjamas as it was early and I had a system — sleep through the first game, then watch the next. This seemed to work as we got through to the final. I was still a bit unsure whether I should jinx it and not watch it at home. But this was it, the BIG game we were all waiting for, so I put on my Fiji Olympic jersey and headed over to Uprising and pulled up a stool. Everyone came out to watch it, the chef, reception, guests, locals and children; huge flags were being waved about and the atmosphere was electric.”
In the final, when Fiji defeated her home country represented by the Great Britain team, she said she was pleased with GBR.
“I was pleased for Team GB to win a very proud silver, but as you can imagine I was over the moon for the boys to win GOLD! I was in a state of shock when the whistle went, then it hit me and tears fell down from the sides of my face. Wow they really did it! It was almost like a dream, but it still hasn’t’ really sunk in, nor for Ben I’m sure.”
Fiji-leaving a mark in Natalie’s life
Leaving everything behind in their home country to be in a place that was totally new to them, Natalie, like many wives would, felt worried when her husband was not being paid in the early months of his work.
From all they saw at the airport when they landed to what they got in the first few months, things seemed to be turning gloomy.
“It was a bit scary in the first few months when Ben revealed that he hadn’t been paid, after a few promises; the following month was the same.
“We had given up everything back home to follow this dream and spent all our savings on the flights, so it was starting to look like it was all going to crumble around us.”
Despite all that they were going through, her man was certain that all would turn out right.
“Ben was confident that it was all going to come through in the end and luckily it did.
“I believe that all of the sacrifices made, have been returned to me twofold.”
When she said she received more than what she had sacrificed for, Natalie said “I’m surrounded by a lovely network of new friends, been immersed into a fascinating new culture and learned to cook healthy food from scratch.
“My most precious new gift that I can take away from this experience is that I’m a lot less materialistic, I enjoy every day, I soak in the beauty of this place and the people.
“Back in England, you wouldn’t talk to strangers or would tend to stick to your own set of friends. But I’ve had to put myself out there and join clubs on my own, live in a foreign country, not knowing a soul, which really took courage and patience at first.”
With some Fijian ways now rubbing in on her, she said “I just hope I don’t get too many funny looks when I try and talk to strangers when we return!”
From when she set foot at Nadi’s International Airport in 2013, when her husband took up the job of coaching a team that was once known the “King of 7s” and has been going down the doldrums to return it to the top of the world, Natalie has no regrets.
“My experience in Fiji is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I love the people, the culture and the amazing big heartfelt laughs you hear.
“There are fewer more enjoyable things than listening to the team sing during a lotu, or the lovely Isa Lei which I first heard sang to me when we were leaving after our first trip. I love the beautiful Bula prints that you see people wear, the selection of colours and the pride in which they wear the sulu jaba or shirt and sulu for men.
“Luckily people don’t know what I look like, so I can travel around on the bus or walk around the vegetable market in Suva and soak up the atmosphere without any special treatment. There are always days that I miss family and friends back home, but even on days like that, it just takes a walk into Pacific Harbour and strangers wave and say Bula to me, which always cheers me up.”
Exploring Fiji and getting to see what it has to offer has given the timid English woman many wonderful memories.
“I’ve been to the Yasawas, Mamanucas, Bua and Savusavu on Vanua Levu, the whole way around Viti Levu and Beqa Island.
“The beauty of this place just takes my breath away! Last year I was one of the Queens judges at the Hibiscus Festival, which was great to be involved in and I even had to be carried over the mud to get to the tent! I was recently honoured to present prefect badges at Rampur College in Navua, such a lovely school.”
Today as she packs up to get ready to return to their families and friends in England, Natalie says, she is not ready to do so, unsure of what to take and what to leave behind.
“I don’t think Fiji is a place you can ever be ready to leave. I hope it’s a place that I’m not leaving, just flying away from, before my next visit. Even packing up my cupboards and thinking what to take has been hard.”
And she said to them as a couple, their three-year journey and sacrifices has finally come to fruition.
“All the hard work, sacrifice and commitment from Ben, the coaching and management team, along the players, really all proved it was worth it. I was so overwhelmed and beyond happy for Fiji — what a momentous occasion that I think will be enjoyed for a while.”
To be the supportive wife that she is, and for someone who believes that support does go a long way, the coach’s wife also has something to advise wives and would-be wives of athletes who get to travel places.
“Having lived this life for nine years now, it isn’t always easy and you miss your partner a great deal. I just form a great network of friends and family around me and keep busy. I plan things in my diary, to meet up with people, exercise twice a week and eat well. I think that when the team are away, they want to know that their partners are supporting them, keeping busy and would take great comfort to know that they are happy and being well looked after by friends and family.”