Elizabeth “Pat” Ryan was born in 1923 at Women’s Hospital in Manhattan and grew up in Pomona, where her father, Dr. William J. Ryan, was superintendent of the Summit Park Sanatorium. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Parochial School in Spring Valley in 1936 and went on to attend Marymount Academy, a private boarding school in Tarrytown, graduating in 1940.
Ryan started swimming at age 5 in small lakes and pools around Rockland County. At age 9 she joined the renowned Women’s Swimming Association (WSA) in New York City to develop her swimming talent. One pool where she swam regularly was the Monterey Pool in Bardonia. Under the guidance of WSA Coach Lou B. de Handley – who also coached Gloria Callen of Nyack and other champions – Ryan improved rapidly. In June 1936, at age 13, she won the 440-yard Junior National title at Jones Beach, N.Y. Her meteoric rise through the swimming ranks received a major boost a few weeks later, when she competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Astoria, N.Y. Ryan finished sixth in the finals of the 100-meter freestyle sprint race to earn the final qualifying berth for the Olympic Games in Berlin.
At age 13, she was the youngest athlete on the U.S. team in the Berlin Olympics.
In the Olympic Games, she swam on the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team. In the elimination heats, the U.S. won its heat with a team of Elizabeth Ryan, Bernice Lapp, Mavis Freeman and Olive McKean. They defeated teams from Great Britain, Canada, Hungary and Austria. In the finals, the U.S. finished third for the bronze medal, with Katherine Rawls (the Olympic Trials winner) replacing Ryan as the leadoff leg. Holland won the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 4:36.0, followed by Germany (4:36.8) and the U.S. (4:40.2).
Ryan received a bronze medal as a member of the relay. She is the only athlete from Rockland County to earn a medal at the Olympic Games. After returning from the Olympics, Ryan won both the New York State and Metropolitan A.A.U.100-yard freestyle swims in indoor and outdoor competition. She also anchored a 300-yard medley relay team that set the American short-course (indoor) record. One of her teammates on that three-person relay was Gloria Callen, a Rockland Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
In September 1937, at age 14, Ryan won the U.S. senior national 100-meter freestyle title at the A.A.U. outdoor championships in San Francisco, setting a meet-record time of 1:08 over a 100-meter straightaway course. Her time was only 1.2 seconds off the American record at that time.
In 1938 she successfully defended her indoor and outdoor titles in the New York State and Metropolitan A.A.U. championships, and went on to win the Metropolitan titles in 1939 and 1940 for a run of four consecutive championships. Still in her prime, Ryan was favored to make the 1940 Olympic team before the Games were cancelled due to World War II. She retired from Elizabeth “Pat” Ryan competitive swimming while still at the peak of her fame. She was in demand for many years afterward, however, and made many charitable appearances while accepting no money and preserving her amateur status. One such event was a 1944 swimming meet in Burlington, Vt., organized by Burlington Daily News editor John Donahue, a fellow Rockland County native and a 1938 Pearl River High School graduate.
At the Burlington meet, Ryan served as honorary chairman and chief judge of the event, joined in judging duties by her younger sisters, Helen and Marita. Elizabeth and Helen (an accomplished swimmer herself) also performed a demonstration of freestyle and backstroke as well as synchronized swimming.
Ryan lived in Queens for many years and never married. She died in 1998 at age 75 from complications of a muscular disease.