After Humbling and Heartening Five Years, Ryan Held Aims for Second Olympic Team

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Ryan Held after winning the men's 100 free at U.S. Nationals in 2019 -- Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

After Humbling and Heartening Five Years, Ryan Held Aims for Second Olympic Team

In the signature moment of his swimming career, Ryan Held teamed up with the consensus best swimmer ever, the top American sprinter of the generation and an emerging star to deliver a signature Olympic gold medal moment. At that point, Held was 21 and relatively unknown, coming off a strong sophomore year at North Carolina State and an even stronger Olympic Trials, where he finished third in the 100 free.

Making his Olympic debut in the men’s 400 free relay prelims, Held recorded the second-fastest split on the American team, but the U.S. coaches selected him over veteran Anthony Ervin to join Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel in the final. Shortly after, Phelps hugged a sobbing Held on the medal podium, the emotions of the moment overwhelming him.

But swimming is a tough sport, and those amazing highs cannot last forever. In the almost five years since Rio, Held has seen it all—not a repeat of that Olympic moment but the elation of going a best time balanced with the crushing disappointment of missing a team or the dispiriting feeling where swimming becomes a joyless task.

One year after Rio, Held missed the World Championships team by one spot (and four hundredths), taking seventh in the 100 free at U.S. Nationals. “I got humbled,” Held said.

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Ryan Held in 2018 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Looking back, Held realized he had expected to coast onto the World Championships team, that result brought heavy frustration and some soul-searching. A year later, Held arrived at another disappointing finish, taking eighth in the 100 free at Nationals after he had been sick shortly beforehand. At that point, Held said, “I knew something had to change,” and that led him to join coach Coley Stickels’ sprint group at Indiana University and later at the University of Alabama, when Stickels became head coach there.

Finally, in 2019, Held again broke through. He was not at the World Championships, but days after that meet ended, he competed at U.S. Nationals in Stanford, Calif., and won the 100 free. He swam a 47.43 in prelims to annihilate his previous best time of 48.26 (from the 2016 Olympic Trials) and then lowered his time to 47.39 in finals to win his first national title. He jumped to 12th all-time in the event (now 13th) and third-fastest ever among Americans, behind Dressel and David Walters. The time was much quicker than Vladislav Grinev’s bronze medal-winning time from the World Championships. Held also won the national title in the 50 free and took fourth in the 100 fly.

In a pre-race conversation at Nationals, Stickels had been discussing details for the race plan when Held said, “‘Coley, it doesn’t matter. I believe I put in the work. I know I can go fast.’ And Coley said, ‘Alright.’ I walked away, and Coley turned around and said, ‘He’s going to win it. He’s going to win the race.’”

Held was elated to return to the level of performance he expected of himself, and he was especially heartened to have his domestic competitors, the men against whom he will battle for spots on the Olympic team, reach out and be genuinely happy for his success.

“I know I can be a world-class swimmer. I want to be on that relay, and I want to be with Team USA fighting for medals. Everyone else knew it, too,” Held said. “I remember Caeleb texted me, and he was like, ‘Dude, that’s a sick 100. Let’s go out and get a gold next year.’”


Ryan Held Rebuilding Towards 2021

Despite all of his 2019 success, however, Held could not carry that momentum into early 2020. He became sick in the fall and missed training time, which ruined his plans to rest for the Knoxville Pro Swim Series meet in January. When he did race in the winter and early spring, he was not satisfied—so when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down his training for months and delayed the Olympics by one year, Held was initially relieved to have a breather.

“At that point, I viewed swimming as a job, and I have to perform, I have to make the Olympic team after I had such a great 2019. I just wasn’t really loving the sport anymore. Swimming and I were kind of having some issues,” Held said. “When quarantine took swimming away from me, the first couple weeks I was like, ‘This is kind of nice,’ but then, a month later, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I would kill to do 10 x 100 long course on 1:30 best average.’ Literally, any other time in my life, I would never want to do that, but during quarantine, I would do that in a heartbeat.”

He came back reinvigorated, but the spring 2020 shutdown would not be the only wrinkle in Held’s plans for a smooth Olympic season. In the fall, he and the other professionals training at the University of Alabama under Stickels were able to swim with the college team for a period, but Stickels resigned from his position with the Crimson Tide on December 28, leaving him with just the group of professionals to work with. But over the next few months, both Margo Geer and Ian Finnerty retired, leaving the group consisting of just Held and Egyptian sprinter Ali Khalafalla. The two swim under Stickels at pools in both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

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Ryan Held at the 2021 TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Even with the less-than-ideal setup, Held feels confident in his training during the final days leading up to Olympic Trials. That has plenty to do with his racing efforts, which included a 21.62 lifetime best in the 50 free in April and then 100 free times of 48.68 in April and 49.03 at the Indianapolis Pro Swim Series in May. But Held also truly believes in the work and the program Stickels has set up for him.

“Having Coley as both a swim coach and a strength coach really helps because there’s no miscommunication of what’s going on in the weight room versus what’s going on in the pool. Coley knows exactly what’s going on in both. It’s literally just us two, so Coley has no one else to look at him pay attention to other than just us two. He knows how much load we’re doing, how much yardage, how our body is working and breaking down,” Held said.

“I just love to race. I just love to be there. I love to be competitive. I think when the big meet’s there, I just like being in the hunt with the other guys and trying to give it my all.”


From Rio to Tokyo (and Beyond)

For a few years after Rio, Held did not think back much on his 2016 experience and that gold medal-winning relay. But in 2020, when the country shut down, Held did zoom calls with club teams and ended up rehashing that story several times, which brought back the memories. Held remembers being in a daze as he walked from the medal podium to various media stops including a formal press conference. As the only member of the relay team with no more swims at the Olympics, he handled much of the media obligations while Phelps, Adrian and Dressel prepared for their upcoming events.

At the Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis last month, Held reminisced on the most uncomfortable moment of that day over dinner with Ervin. The veteran had posted a slightly quicker split in prelims, but the coaching staff pulled Held aside and asked Ervin to break the news about the finals lineup. When the met recently, Ervin admitted that he was disappointed with the coaches’ decision, but looking back now, he recognizes that swimming on the finals relay might have affected his 50 free a few days later, and he went on to win the gold medal.

“Anthony was like, ‘Yeah, I was pretty mad. I wasn’t too happy. But who wouldn’t be in that situation?’” Held recalled. “It was really cool to relive that experience with him.”

Back in 2016, Held snuck up on some people at Olympic Trials, qualifying second in the 100 free after both prelims and semifinals and then taking third in the final despite having no elite racing experience or any hype surrounding his name.

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Ryan Held — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

This time, Held is one of the favorites behind world champion Dressel in the 100 free. Six American men broke 48 in the event in 2019, a massive improvement over zero in 2018, and after the Russian men have posted some impressive results in the 100 free this year, the Americans will need another strong set of performances at Trials to cement their status as Olympic favorites in the 400 free relay.

As Held prepares for this Trials, he recognizes that his 2016 experience can only help in his return to Omaha.

“Knowing what it’s going to feel like, what it’s going to be like walking out of that tunnel and the lights and kids screaming. That’s definitely unsettling to some people,” Held said. “And just the guts it takes.”

Before the pandemic, Held had begun working on his online graduate certificate in geographic information systems (GIS) through NC State, but after the Olympics’ postponement, he decided to upgrade to the full masters program. He still has three more semesters of classes to take, so he anticipates swimming at least one more year after this one before he begins a career in environmental GIS, perhaps mapping out animals’ natural habitats and dealing with factors that may impact those habitats.

But Held said that he’s thinking of this season as his “last dance,” referencing the documentary on basketball superstar Michael Jordan released last spring. For Held, that means embracing and enjoying each moment along the journey. “I know I don’t have that many more laps around the track or many more hard practices,” he said.

“You think the Olympics and your life is so unmovable, unshakeable, but unforeseen actions around the world can change how everyone around the world swims, trains, acts. You think everything in the world can’t be changed, but one little thing derails your four-year plan and now makes it a five-year plan. There’s no need to be mad or angry at swimming because that’s not going to do any good. Just enjoy it, have fun. It’s easier said than done sometimes because you’re in the middle of a set, your body is cramping and you feel like you can’t even make these intervals, missing whatever stroke counts, kick counts. But looking back on it, it was just fun.”

9 comments

    • avatar
      Diane Langen

      Yes, indeed, you have been working out!!
      Ryan. good luck at the trails this upcoming week! We all are rooting for you!

  1. Nysha Polk

    OMG…someone’s been working out!! Good luck Ryan!!

  2. avatar
    Sean Groeber

    hi coach david–good job

  3. avatar
    Ruth Hanken

    Way to go, Ryan! Keep up the hard work! 🥳

  4. avatar
    Kaylie

    Great guy. Good luck at Trials, Ryan!

  5. avatar
    RISE' CROENNE

    Good luck Ryan! All of Raymond, IL are cheering you on!

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