Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Top Olympic Town: Number Three - Timaru

As part of our comprehensive build-up to Rio 2016, the Herald, in association with ANZ, is counting down New Zealand's top Olympic towns. Today, number three - Timaru. Find out how the list was compiled below.

For a double Olympic medallist and world champion, Marc Ryan is a humble chap.

The 33-year-old cyclist is proud of the bronze medals he won in the 4000m team pursuit in Beijing and London, and for his glittering 14-year career at the top of the gruelling global sport.

But for this self-effacing Kiwi sporting hero, it's legacy rather than personal achievements he considers most fondly.

The Beijing bronze, won in 2008 with Sam Bewley, Hayden Roulston, Jesse Sergent and Wes Gough, together with Roulston's individual silver at the same Games, paved the way for Cycling New Zealand's success on the world stage.

At Rio, New Zealand will be one of just three nations to qualify its entire quota of cyclists.

"Without those results, none of that would be achievable," says Ryan.

Ryan was born to ride. His father, Colin, was a world-class sprinter in the 1970s. His grandfather was also a pedaller. So were his cousins.

"It was definitely in the blood from a young age," says the Timaru Boys' High alumnus, who retired earlier this year.

Growing up in Timaru also helped. The South Canterbury region has always produced high-quality cyclists. They spur each other on.

After initially splitting his time between road and track, most of Ryan's cycling success came inside the velodrome.

His first taste of the big time came at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when he was part of the team pursuit squad that finished 10th.

At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, he combined with Hayden Godfrey, Peter Latham and Tim Gudsell to win bronze.

Repeating his heroics from Beijing, he teamed up with Bewley, Sergent and Aaron Gate (who replaced Wes Gough after the first ride) to win team bronze again in London in 2012.

And he helped New Zealand finally land a team gold, at the world champs in Paris last year.

Ryan also competed at the top level of road racing, and in 2011 signed with the crack Marco Polo professional team.

For all that success, and the prospect of attending a fourth Olympics in Rio, Ryan still felt it was right to go out on top. He has no regrets.

"Life's been pretty good since I retired," he said.

"It's a lot less stressful. When the Games come, I'll be watching for sure, supporting 100 per cent. I'll always be there if they need a word or advice in any way."

He's currently working for sponsors who have "looked after me over the years", and will soon move to Switzerland to study at the UCI World Cycling Centre for a coaching diploma.

"I want to give back to New Zealand cycling in the future."

Inspiring the next generation is something the soft-spoken, unassuming Ryan is passionate about.

After winning bronze in Beijing, his school teacher sister talked him into visiting his old primary school.

"I knew what sort of kick it would be for kids to see the medal, moreso than to hear me talk!"

That summer, dozens of children showed up at Timaru's 400m outdoor concrete track at the Caledonian Grounds where Ryan grew up racing.

"Each weekend [the club] is getting 40-plus kids ... in a town our size. And you don't see that anywhere else really.

"It's nice to see that you've had that impact on a lot of young kids, and for sure there's going to be another group of kids come through and do exactly what we've done."

Big tickers crucial in Riviera of the South

Locals think it's something in the water. The mayor says its inhabitants have huge hearts like their champion racehorse.

Whatever the cause, there's no disputing the rich sporting tapestry of Timaru: the Riviera of the South.

The South Canterbury seaside town can lay claim to some of the greatest sporting names in New Zealand history.

It has raised statues to 1930 Melbourne Cup winner Phar Lap, world heavyweight boxing great Bob Fitzsimmons and 1936 Olympic 1500m champion Jack Lovelock.

(Although born in the tiny West Coast mining settlement of Crushington, Lovelock went to Timaru Boys' High School and is synonymous with the town.)

Double Olympic gold hero Danyon Loader was born there, albeit by accident, with his mother falling into labour during the drive back to Dunedin.

Rio medal prospect Tom Walsh is a part-time builder from Timaru, and will be joined in Brazil by trap shooter Natalie Rooney and women's eight rower Emma Dyke.

Growing up in the town and attending Timaru Boys' High, double Olympic medallist Marc Ryan says the region's sporting history was an inspiration.

"Walking through school's memorial library and seeing [Lovelock's] Olympic medals ... it was something I always wanted to do as a young kid."

Bruce Ledley, former Timaru Boys teacher and now registrar of the Old Boys' Association, says the impact of historic heroics goes beyond Olympic sports.

For more than a century, the school's First XV has sung Sir Henry Newbolt Drake's Drum before its annual grudge match against Waitaki Boys' High. A bottle of "speedy oil", a secret 1913 concoction including liniment oil, also makes an annual appearance.

"Stuff like that, which many people think in many ways is nonsense, is part of the school's strong sporting tradition and does help to bring through the next generation of high achievers," Mr Ledley says.

Timaru mayor Damon Odey says although it's only a small district of around 50,000 people, the sports facilities are high-class.

Coupled with staunch community support, athletes have every chance to make it.

"South Canterbury is the home of Phar Lap and that horse had a pretty big heart and that's what all us South Cantabrians have - we have some pretty big motors ticking away in there and we go pretty hard, eh."

How we did it

We analysed information about every summer Games medallist to come up with the 10 towns that have made the biggest contribution to Olympic glory.

The final position is the result of combining two rankings. The gold rank is based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population.

The Olympic rank is based on the number of medal-winning Olympians born in each town and city, divided by current population. We averaged the rankings to come up with the final position.

Today's town, Timaru, is third on the ladder with a population of 45,400, according to 2015 figures from Statistics NZ. It's the birthplace of three Olympians who have won six medals, including three golds. Its gold rank is four and its Olympic rank three, giving an average of 3.5.

The method isn't scientific and we expect it to prompt debate. We know some athletes might identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born.

But our ranking gives a strong indication of the places that have given us greatest cause to celebrate Olympic success since Harry Kerr won New Zealand's first medal - a bronze in the 3500m walk at the 1908 Games in London.

- NZ Herald

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