Bitter Taste Motivating Ryan Held into U.S. Nationals

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

In his own mind, Ryan Held was a presumptuous member of the 2017 U.S. World Championships team. He had the five Olympic rings tattooed on his shoulder. He had followed Michael Phelps into the water on an Olympic gold medal-winning relay, then cried on the shoulder of the 23-time Olympic gold medalist as he received the first gold of his own. Afterwards, he had received a hero’s welcome home to Springfield, Ill.

After all that, why would he not cruise onto the World Championship team in the 100 free? It only required a top-six finish in the event at Nationals. He would make it easily, Held believed.

Only 12 months earlier, Held had believed in himself, and so had his NC State coaches, but that was about it. He was pretty much an unknown 21-year-old at that point, the second-best sprinter on a good NCAA team. Until he finished second in the 100 free prelims, second in semi-finals and then third in the final to make the Olympic team.

Well, just hours into the 2017 meet, Held was humbled. The scoreboard said so, and so did his face. Four events into the meet, Held knew deep down that he wasn’t going to Budapest. He had finished seventh in the 100 free in 48.53, four hundredths behind Olympic teammate Blake Pieroni and the sixth-place spot he needed.

“Honestly, I probably handled it pretty poorly,” Held said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow. This isn’t me. This isn’t right. I’m supposed to be on this World Championships team. I’m Ryan Held. I’m an Olympian.”

Jaded by the results of his 100 free, nothing else that happened that week in Indianapolis changed that—not his sixth-place finish in the 50 fly, not his eighth-place finish in the 50 free, and certainly not what happened in the men’s 50 back, when in a field featuring the two Olympic gold medalists, Justin Ress touched the wall first.


Justin Ress — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When Ress finished his freshman year at NC State in 2016, he was a mid-distance swimmer who made the semi-finals in the 100 and 200 back at Olympic Trials. As a sophomore, he made inroads into the sprinting field, even filling in for Held on the 400 medley relay at the ACC and SEC championships.

Now, Ress was going to Budapest, and Held was not—and Held admits that he could have handled the situation with a bit more maturity.

“I was a little bitter that I got shut out from the team and he made it, and I was like, ‘Man, it should have been me—I should be on that team,’” Held said. “But those feelings were short-lived. Afterwards, I was so happy for him. Like, ‘I’m so happy you’re on the team. It’s a great learning experience. Go out, and kick some European butt.’”

Now, Ress is a sprinter, a threat in both the 50 and 100 back at U.S. Nationals and even in the 100 free. While Held was finishing second in the 100 free at the NCAA championships, Ress took third. Heading into this week’s Nationals in Irvine, Calif., Held has the eighth-fastest time in the U.S. this year at 49.35, and just ahead of him is Ress at No. 6 (49.14).

With just four spots up for grabs in that event for this summer’s Pan Pacific Championships—as opposed to the usual six for an Olympics or World Championships—it could easily come down to either Ress or Held for one of the spots.

“Sometimes it’s a little hard because he outshines me in my own events,” Held said. “He whoops me at all the in-season meets and beats me all the time. He goes stupidly fast in practice. Sometimes it’s hard because I want to be there, I want to have that speed in-season, do what he does.”

So what’s the relationship like between the two? Just like you’d expect: They’re roommates.

“We’re good friends—we hang out, we go eat together, we play video games together all the time. He lives right above me, so we just hang out in the living room, watch movies,” Held said. “When we’re at practice, we’re competitors, and at meets, we’re competitors, but when we’re at home, it’s just two college kids hanging out, just being lazy together.”

Worth noting, though, that the college chapter of Held’s life—or at least his swimming career—is behind him. Having finished up his NCAA career with the Wolfpack this year, the only carrots left for him to chase in his career are international teams and medals and, ultimately, another Olympics.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

He leaves the NC State program as a gamechanger, the one who proved that Braden Holloway’s program could place swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team and win gold medals. Still, Held downplayed the legacy he leaves behind, since “all of my records are probably going to be broken in four years or so.”

From Rio, Held carries some of the best memories of his life. He remembers watching closely how Phelps carried himself in the ready room and after his races, both victories and his one defeat. What he saw was a man with his chest held high and an unbreakable spirit.

Maybe Ryan Held was cocky as he tried to qualify for his first World Championship team in 2017, but not anymore. After the year away, Held said he’s hungry to regain his spot on the No. 1 American international roster. Maybe there’s a little chip on his shoulder, and maybe we’ll see that this week in Irvine.

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