By Chase McFadden//Content Contributor | Wednesday, December 7, 2016
If you weren’t familiar with Ryan Held before the Olympics this summer, you aren’t alone.
Prior to the Rio Games – where he made headlines not only for winning gold as a member of the U.S. 400 freestyle relay but also for breaking down and crying on the medals stand – Held was just another good swimmer on a fantastic American team.
Now, as an Olympic champion, the North Carolina State junior freestyler is positioned for many great things moving forward – and he’s brimming with more confidence than even he could have imagined.
“For the longest time, I was a good swimmer in central Illinois but that was about it; I hadn’t really done anything notable on a national level and was nowhere near the top 100 in my events,” he said.
“But then at the 2015 Phillips Nationals, I made the top 16 in the 100 free, and that really made me start to believe that I had a good chance to make the Olympic team. That motivated me to work harder to make that a reality.”
In addition to his swimming performance – earning a spot in the Olympic final after swimming a very fast time during morning prelims – Held made a huge impact for his overwhelmingly emotional reaction to receiving his medal and hearing the National Anthem.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram blew up. Women proposed to him, and men and women were moved by his patriotic expression online.
The world was enamored of this relatively unknown U.S. swimmer who wore his heart on his sleeve along with the medal around his neck.
He appeared on the Today Show, made the media rounds and generally soaked up the attention he garnered from his unplanned, un-staged expression of emotion.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I turned off my phone a couple of days before we swam so I could be free from stories about who should win, messages, etc. I just wanted to focus on my swimming.
“So after we won, I turned my phone on, and there were so many messages. My phone vibrated and alerted me to messages for hours afterwards. The congratulations and well wishes were overwhelming.”
Being an Olympian and Olympic champion was a moment Held said he’d dreamed of ever since he learned to swim as a 6-year-old at his local YMCA in Springfield, Ill.
He followed his older brother, Kendal, to swim practice at the urging of his mother, Cheryl, who wanted both boys to compete in the same sport.
And although he competed in several other sports later in elementary and junior high, he switched his focus exclusively to swimming in the eighth grade after breaking his leg doing a land sport.
As someone who wasn’t recruited heavily out of his school and was a late bloomer finding his form and speed during his first two years with the Wolfpack, being an Olympian wasn’t something he really thought he’d ever truly experience.
And standing next to his swim idols Nathan Adrian and Michael Phelps with gold medals around their necks was almost too much for him to comprehend.
“Are you kidding me? I was standing between Nathan and Michael after swimming with them and winning gold; that’s every kid’s dream come true,” he said. “I had posters of both of them on my walls for years, and then I had the opportunity to meet them, train with them and compete with them.
“It still kind of doesn’t feel like it really happened until I see the medal and the photos of us on the podium.”
Held said in retrospect there were three reasons for his emotional outpouring at the Olympics. For one, he wasn’t supposed to be there having been a no-name and never having made a National Team up to that point. Secondly, he was overwhelmed with thoughts about everyone he was representing there on the podium – NC State, central Illinois, the United States, his family, etc.
Third, he was overtaken by seeing the U.S. flag being raised above the others and hearing the National Anthem, remembering all the people before him who had given their lives for freedom.
“Michael (Phelps) put his arm around me and just told me ‘Bud, it’s going to be OK. You’re a gold medalist. Enjoy it,’” said Held, who also grew up idolizing French Olympic Champion (2012 50 freestyle) Florent Manadou.
“He said that’s what the Olympics are all about, and I was just thinking ‘Holy cow. That’s Michael Phelps with his arm around me and consoling me.’”
Held said he made his greatest improvement since arriving in Raleigh by increasing his power in the water.
As the big fish in a small pond on his YMCA and high school teams, he usually won simply by spinning his arms as fast as he could.
But once he joined the Wolfpack – an up-and-coming program that finished fourth at NCAAs in 2016 – he quickly learned that changing the pace of his stroke actually improved his performance and times…and elevating his game.
“Slowing down with a longer, smoother stroke actually creates more power, but I never knew that until I came to NC State,” he said. “In the past, I would cruise through the first 50 of the 200 freestyle and then go all-out over the last 150 yards.
“Now, I have a much more deliberate pace and stroke, and it’s made a tremendous difference in my results.”
He also has a much brighter outlook for his future as it involves swimming.
“Four years ago, I watched Olympic Trials from my couch at home; I didn’t have a single Trials cut, and I was nowhere close to making an Olympic Team,” said Held, a fisheries, wildlife and conservation major. “But it’s really amazing what you can achieve when you really want something.
“Now, I’m looking forward to 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics, and that wasn’t even on my radar a few years ago. I’ll graduate in a few years and then hope to turn professional and go after making a second Olympic team. After that, we’ll just have to see where things go.”
USA Swimming is re-celebrating the top moments from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Check back on USASwimming.org every few days for new profile on the the swimmers who made those moments happen. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @USASwimming for more on our success in Rio.