By David Rieder.
Three years ago, North Carolina State dominated the swimming competition at the men’s ACC championships. In Braden Holloway’s third year with the program, the team was a relative unknown before arriving in Greensboro, but it did not take long for fans to take notice of what was going on.
Wolfpack sophomores Simonas Bilis and Christian McCurdy won two individual events each, and the team finished first in four out of five relays on the way to scoring 1203 points in swimming, by far the highest of any team.
But Virginia Tech won that meet, buoyed by 205 diving points that had been scored a week earlier, and that was enough to put the Hokies over the top by 38.5 points.
Undeterred, NC State came back one year later and won the conference title by 153 points over Louisville. In 2016, the margin was a whopping 334.5 points over the Cardinals, and the team went on to finish fourth at the NCAA championships, matching the highest finish in program history—last achieved in 1955.
But the final—and perhaps the biggest—moment of validation for the NC State program came June 29 in Omaha, Neb., when rising junior sprinter Ryan Held finished third in the 100 free final at the U.S. Olympic Trials and booked his ticket to Rio.
What did that finish mean to the NC State program? Just watch the reaction of Held’s coaches.
Held went on to swim the third leg of the U.S. 400 free relay at the Olympics, and he earned a gold medal for his efforts—and then plenty of public recognition after he broke down in tears on the medal podium, only to be consoled by Michael Phelps.
Less than two weeks later, Held was back on campus in Raleigh. He had a gold medal in his pocket but was more or less unchanged after the experience.
“I don’t know if it’s changed him as a person because he’s pretty much the same kid,” Holloway said. “If you ask him something, he does it. He’s well-mannered. He’s responsible. But he’s always been that way. That’s part of his traits that helped him get to the Olympics.
“I think the biggest thing that changed for him is his belief that he can swim even faster,” the coach added.
The 21-year-old from Springfield, Ill., knows he won’t have much choice. Last season, Bilis was still the man among NC State’s sprinters, finishing second at NCAAs in both the 50 and 100 free and third in the 200 free while providing the go-to leg on the Wolfpack relays. Now, those front-and-center duties will fall on Held.
“If were down half a bodylength and he jumped in, there was no doubt he was going to catch up and win it for the team,” Held said of Bilis’ relay exploits during a recent appearance on Off Deck. “I think that is my position now. I’m always the anchor leg, the last swim people are looking up to to try to come back and win one for the relay.”
Also making his return from the Olympics this season for the Wolfpack was Anton Ipsen, who finished 18th in the 1500 free and 400 free while representing Denmark in Rio. And since he came back, Ipsen’s performances have been exceptional—heading into conference championship season, he ranked fifth in the country in the 500 free (4:13.40) and third in the 1650 free (14:39.63).
“That guy has been on a mission ever since he got back,” Holloway said of Ipsen. “For Anton, that was his dream. I don’t think Ryan really knew it was his dream for real until it got close. I think with Anton, he’s always been pretty good, so he’s always had that dream, ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’
“He had that experience, and [now] it’s almost like a weight lifted off his shoulders, and now he really gets to cut loose. He’s training at a higher level than he ever has, even last year. He got that experience, he enjoyed it, he did well, he represented his country, and now he gets to focus on other things just as much and put just as much heart and soul into it.”
Held and Ipsen will be the two Wolfpack men in contention for national championships, but it’s been the team’s depth that’s allowed them to successfully weather the losses of Bilis and McCurdy. Seniors Hennessey Stuart and Soren Dahl remain versatile contributors, and junior Andreas Vazaios and freshman Coleman Stewart have been this season’s revelations.
All of that added up to an undefeated dual meet season that included a win over two-time defending NCAA champion Texas on the Longhorns’ home turf. The Wolfpack have ranked No. 1 in the CSCAA Division I poll numerous times throughout the season,most recently in the Feb. 11 poll.
On paper, the Wolfpack should be easy favorites to win a fourth-straight ACC team championship this week, and unfortunately for their competition, the squad comes in on an emotional high as well.
Just over a week ago, the NC State women won their first ACC title since 1980. The Wolfpack men were back in Raleigh but eagerly following along with their teammates’ every race.
“We were psyched to watch the girls swim fast and jump in the water,” Held said. “Every night, we were huddled around someone’s TV at someone’s house screaming, chanting, cheering. They definitely got the momentum going, and that’s huge for swimming.”
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.