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For Wheelchair Hoops’ Courtney Ryan, Tattoos Are A Way To Honor Her Family, Experiences

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Courtney Ryan looks to pass during a game at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

Courtney Ryan wants to keep telling the story of her unfolding life — and honor her family — through pieces of special art. Ryan, a member of the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team that won a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, finds deep meaning in the seven tattoos that adorn her body.

“Each one is intentional, I don’t rush into getting a piece,” Ryan, a native of San Diego who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, said. “They mean so much to me, and I draw strength when I look and see them. They mean something, they show my heritage and culture, my family, what I have gone through to get here.

“I’m definitely not done getting them; more are coming. Just stay tuned.”

Her first tattoo came in her mid-teens. Yes, she knows she was technically underage, but Ryan loves the memory of getting a Celtic-styled shamrock on her left shoulder with her cousin. She knew her family wouldn’t be too upset with her decision, as the majority also have their own tattoos. It’s her family’s way of marking things in their lives that carry meaning.

“It’s like my entire family, seriously, from mom to father, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody in my family has tattoos,” she said, adding a laugh. “I’m nothing special. Historically, for us, it’s always been around and appreciated by us. The tattoos are art to them, and me, and being able to carry those memories forward in a real way with us.”

Three important tattoos peek out on her arms: the infinity symbol with an equal sign on the inside of her right biceps, and on the left arm, an abstract-ish looking design of lines in an odd pattern and a honeycomb with a bee. Oftentimes, these appear in photos from her personal Instagram account.

The equality/infinity ink is easy to explain: Ryan is openly out and wanted to show her beliefs. The lines piece is a little more complicated, leaving Ryan to decide how to spin it when she asked for the meaning.

“I decide if the person asking really wants to know, or if they are not going to understand,” she said. “So I may tell them it shows how many people I’ve killed, or how many scoring records I have in basketball, and I keep adding lines. They look stunned. Yeah, I’m joking, of course.”

The real answer is this: She was a star forward for the Metropolitan State University of Denver soccer team when, on Oct. 8. 2010, she was tackled from behind and fell awkwardly on her back. A blood clot grew from the impact, eventually burst, and then leaked into her spinal cord. Ryan was left paralyzed from the waist down and had to figure out the rest of her life.

Sports re-entered her life after a lot of rehab and hard work, and wheelchair basketball has become a strong outlet of success. Coming off their bronze medal in Tokyo, Ryan and Team USA won bronze again in Dubai at the 2022 world championships. Now she’s aiming to be part of Team USA for the 2024 Paris Paralympics. Her other job is being an assistant coach for the University of Arizona’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.

And so that set of lines, inked on the interior of her left biceps, is the story of what she has been through — in ancient Ogham (Celtic) writing. It honors her family’s Irish heritage and her personal survival.

“It’s my story of getting through tough times, and learning how to overcome challenges,” Ryan, 32, said. “I look there when I need strength. It reminds me of how far I have come to be here.”

Courtney Ryan competes against China during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sept. 2, 2021 in Tokyo. (Photo by Mark Reis)

The other piece on the inside of her left arm, farther down toward her forearm, is a honeycomb look with a bee in it. The hexagonal forms of the honeycomb are various shades of gray and black, with the bee popping out, nearly 3-D style, on top.

The bee is a tribute to her grandmother, who was nicknamed “Bee.”

Ryan’s other standout piece, which is less likely to be seen, is on her left upper thigh. It is a colorful branch of cherry blossoms at the height of spring bloom. It took a long time to get done, with a pair of three-hour sessions, but Ryan said she is patient to get good ink.

“That honors my grandma Ryan, her favorite flower was the cherry blossom,” Ryan said. “Her family immigrated here, and she had art of cherry blossoms. So the choice to pick cherry blossoms was obvious for her. It’s pretty.”

Ryan said her next tattoo may come on the same left leg, likely on a lower part, to honor where she lives now — the desert plants of Arizona. An ocotillo cactus, distinctive because of its long, spindly branches from the main plant, is likely coming this fall.

Ryan never uses the same artist twice, feeling that different people adding their work to her body makes it more unique. She finds tattoo artists online, looking at Instagram, and also by taking word-of-mouth recommendations from her friends and family. She’s open to anything but is deliberate in wanting to create “beautiful art together” with the artist.

“I think once you get one tattoo, you’re going to get hooked. I’ve met very few people with only one tattoo,” she said. “It’s almost like an addiction. It’s something you will have the rest of your life, and it draws me back because of the good experiences.”

The one tattoo Ryan said she is unlikely to get is the Paralympic agitos. Many Olympic and Paralympic athletes get a small Olympic rings or Paralympic agitos tattoo to symbolize the achievement of reaching the Games.

“That really doesn’t appeal to me, but I totally understand why people would want to get one — it’s a big accomplishment to be part of the Games,” she said. “I love when people get that tattoo, because it is something special for them. I just haven’t felt that I wanted that yet.”