Ryan Held Breaks Streak of Bad Timing With Individual World Championships Medal and Relay Gold

Ryan Held -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Ryan Held Breaks Streak of Bad Timing With Individual World Championships Medal and Relay Gold

Ever since the moment when Ryan Held won Olympic gold as part of the U.S. men’s 400 freestyle relay at the 2016 Olympics, his career has suffered from off swims at the worst possible moments. One year after combining with legends Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian and future legend Caeleb Dressel in a career-defining moment, he finished seventh in the 100 free at U.S. World Championship Trials, four hundredths off the team. In 2018, same story: eighth, and 0.15 off the team.

Finally, in 2019, Held got the breakthrough he had been seeking when he won the 100 free at U.S. Nationals in 47.39. That meet occurred the week after the World Championships, so no selection was at stake, but the former NC State standout and native of Springfield, Ill., vaulted himself up to third all-time among Americans in the event, just ahead of Phelps and Adrian. The time was much quicker than the bronze-medal-winning time in the 100 free from that year’s Worlds. Heading into the Olympic year, Held looked a strong candidate for the No. 2 U.S. spot in the 100 free along with Dressel and at the very least a key relay piece once again.

But after the one-year Olympic delay thanks to COVID-19, Held could not replicate that form at his second Olympic Trials. He had been training with coach Coley Stickels at the University of Alabama, but when Stickels left that program in December 2020, Held stayed with Stickels. Eventually, the group consisted of only one other swimmer, Egyptian sprinter Ali Khalafalla, at pools in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It was not an ideal setup, and Held did not swim his best at Trials.

In his return trip to Omaha five years after first achieving his Olympic dream, Held posted the top time in the 100 free prelims and then the fourth-best time in semifinals. His finals swim was his slowest of the meet (and more than a second off his best), but he still finished sixth, seemingly in line for a return trip to the Olympics. In recent history, the top-six finishers in a relay event (100 free and 200 free) had never not been selected for the Olympic team, even if that spot would always be the last to be added.

Ryan Held (photo: Mike Lewis)

Ryan Held behind the blocks during the 2021 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Not this time. A little-known rule allowed the American team to only select 12 relay-only swimmers (women and men combined), and there were 13 such candidates. The swimmer with the lowest world-ranked finals swim would be knocked out, and that turned out to be Held. That rule had never excluded a swimmer before. So in a crushing disappointment and the ultimate bad-luck turn of events, Held was out.

Perhaps now, finally, his luck has turned. At the Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi, Held has looked like one of the best sprinters in the world. Each day of the meet so far, Held has touched the wall first in his first race of the session. The men’s 400 free relay on day one saw Held lead off in 45.75, putting the Americans in front by four tenths, and his team went on to capture bronze.

The next day, he touched first after his leadoff leg in the mixed 200 free relay, although that group ended up fourth. On day three, he blasted a 20.81 in the 50 free for the top qualifying mark into the final. He swam even faster leading off the U.S. men’s 200 free relay on day four, with a 20.72, but the Americans again fell to fourth place in a heartbreaking finish. They missed the medals by just three hundredths, and the team was just two tenths away from gold.

But the night was far from done, and over the next two hours, Held would experience two of the signature moments of his career. In the 50 freestyle final, Held improved his lifetime best again and touched in 20.70, securing a silver medal. He had been the gold medalist in the 100 free at the 2017 World University Games, but this was his first-ever individual medal at any World Championships.

Then, Held was asked to anchor the U.S. men’s 800 free relay, handling a 200-meter race that’s on the upper end of his range, and he delivered again. He dove in with a 1.4-second lead and extended it to secure a gold medal. The U.S. foursome, which included Kieran Smith, Trenton Julian and Carson Foster, set an American record and just missed the world record.

After that successful Sunday, Held will be positioned for another individual medal run in the 100 free as well. He will have to face off against Olympic bronze medalist Kliment Kolesnikov, 200 free winner Hwang Sunwoo and Olympic finalists Alessandro Miressi and Maxime Grousset, but Held actually beat both Kolesnikov and Miressi head-to-head on that 400 free relay leadoff back on day one, and his leadoff split was just two tenths off the top splits from a relay exchange.

Held also figures to anchor the Americans on both men’s medley relays, the 200-meter event Monday and the 400 Tuesday.

Before the 2021 Trials, Held admitted that he did not expect to continue training and competing for another Olympic cycle through 2024. He wanted to continue racing for a while, and Short Course Worlds was certainly on the table, maybe even a shot at the long course World Championships this coming spring. Since Trials, Held has moved his training west to Arizona State University, and he got engaged to former NC State teammate Lexie Lupton. It’s unclear if his future racing plans have changed during that time.

But swimming is not always about the future, one race pointing to bigger and better things down the line. Whether or not Held races internationally again, winning his first-ever individual medal at a World Championships and anchoring a U.S. relay to gold will make Sunday one of the highlights of his swimming career, right along with winning Olympic gold.

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Kurt W
4 months ago

Good for Held. Maybe he’ll decide to continue competing. We need him.