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About Joan Ryan

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By Megan Schneider

Two female sportswriters, both by the name of Joan Ryan, have experienced firsthand the changing world of sports journalism as they played integral roles in breaking down the gender barrier in a male-dominated field. The inclusion of women drastically changed the landscape of sports as athletes, coaches and male counterparts alike adjusted to this paradigm shift.

American journalism was witnessing an upward trend in the number of female sportswriters with the hopes of increasing circulation and attracting more women to read the sports page. Both Joan Ryans served as pioneers in this new era of female sports journalists and proved that women are just as qualified and knowledgeable about sports.

Both Ryan women launched their careers as sports journalists about 20 years apart from each other, yet each valued the prospect of women being able to have the same access to teams and players for their stories and simply being treated as equals.

Joan Ryan, 78, launched her career as a sports journalist when her husband, Frank Ryan, became the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

However, when she graduated from the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, with a degree in English literature in 1958, she did not know that she would write about sports. Her focus was raising a family and taking care of their four children while her husband focused on football with his first team, the Los Angeles Rams.

Yet she believes her background in literature and wealth of knowledge from reading a variety of books helped solidify her writing skills for sports. For her, it framed her basic understanding of human behavior, a vital component of all sporting events.

While in Cleveland in the early 1960s, Ryan wrote a sports column called “Back Seat Brown,” playing off of an older column called “Backseat Quarterback” written by the wife of a New York Giants quarterback. She drew from her experiences as a wife of an NFL player and closely followed her husband’s career. She also wrote on spec columns for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post, two major newspapers in her husband’s hometown.

The Ryan family then moved to Washington, where her husband played for the Washington Redskins during the 1969 and 1970 seasons. Here, Dave Burgin, the sports editor of the Washington Star, sought her out to cover sports at both the college and professional level.

She then was a member of the sports department at The Washington Post under sports editor George Solomon, where she was a columnist and also reported on the famous Indianapolis 500 in which A.J. Foyt earned his fourth title for this race, a record that remains unbroken.

Shortly after the Indy 500, she and her husband moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where they spent 14 years at Yale University. Frank Ryan served as the school’s athletic director as well as a faculty member of its math department, while Joan Ryan assisted with school publications, including its newspaper. She also continued to write columns for The Washington Post Writers Group.

Today, Joan Ryan resides in Grafton, Vermont, with her husband. She currently enjoys writing about creative, off-the-beat topics for the Grafton News, from deer in the snow in her backyard to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.

Joan Ryan, 54, was born in the Bronx in New York City as the third of six children, but her family spent their days down at Yankee Stadium even after moving to New Jersey. The ballpark was their second home. Her father was an avid sports fan and coached all six children in baseball and softball while teaching them to believe in themselves, that they were the good athletes. This self-confidence in turn sparked Ryan’s interest in sports journalism when she aspired to become an editor of a newspaper.

The Ryan family moved to South Florida when she was 12 years old. She attended the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in journalism with a focus on editing in 1981. She received her first job three days after graduation as a copy editor for the Orlando Sentinel, a job she thought not many people wanted. Yet, she soon became the first woman in the sports department when the paper’s editor, Dave Burgin, heard about her desire to write about sports. She first copy- edited stories, a task she knew well, then gained recognition from her fellow colleagues and began covering local sports teams as a feature writer and columnist.

She moved to San Francisco in 1985 as a full-time sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, where she covered boxing with the help of her husband, Barry Tompkins, a longtime FOX sportscaster. Then in 1994, the Chronicle hired her to continue writing columns and features for the metro section, but after her passion switched to longform journalism; thus, she took to a career as an author.

Her books include the well-known “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters,” which was named one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time by Sports Illustrated, and “The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son and Their Second Chance.” She also co-wrote “Shooting from the Outside: How a Coach and her Olympic Team Changed Women’s Basketball” with Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer, as well as writing the copy for the photo book “Freak Season: Behind the Scenes with San Francisco Giants Pitcher Tim Lincecum from Spring Training to the World Series.”

Her career as a journalist has earned her many accolades, including the prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award from the White House Correspondents Association, 13 Associated Press Sports Editors writing awards, the National Headliner Award and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Journalism Award.

Ryan resides in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, with her husband and their son, Ryan. She serves as a media consultant for the San Francisco Giants as she continues to pursue additional book endeavors.

Advocating for female sportswriters, each Joan Ryan has treasured advice from members of their families that helped shape their careers.

The younger Joan Ryan, a media consultant for the San Francisco Giants, looked up to her father who believed she was the best player on the field and later the best writer in the press box.

Similarly, Joan Ryan, wife of a former NFL quarterback, drew inspiration from her husband, who told her “it’s better to climb up the tree and crawl out on the limb than to stand on the ground and just look up.”