Ryan Held Makes Triumphant Olympic Return: ‘Heartbreaking’ Tokyo Miss Now ‘Blessing in Disguise’

Ryan Held -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Ryan Held Makes Triumphant Olympic Return: ‘Heartbreaking’ Tokyo Miss Now ‘Blessing in Disguise’

He had missed making international teams before, finishing seventh in the 100 freestyle at the 2017 U.S. Nationals and missing the World Championships team by four hundredths before falling to eighth one year later. But this time was different: Ryan Held thought he had secured his spot on the Tokyo Olympic team, even if he swam his slowest 100 free performance of the meet in his sixth-place finish in the final. But USA Swimming could only take 12 relay-only swimmers to the Games while 13 had qualified. Based on selection procedures and tiebreakers, Held was left out.

It was one of the lowest moments possible for a swimmer, fully believing an Olympic spot to be locked up, only to lose out on a rule he never knew existed.

“We had never not taken six (swimmers in the 100 free), and then being left off the team by like a technicality, it was heartbreaking. I was kind of in a mix of emotions, because swimming, which had brought me so much joy and passion for so long, now all of the sudden caused me so much pain and anger and confusion,” Held said. “It stung for a long time.”

That omission left Held at a key inflection point in his career: would he continue through the next Olympic cycle?

He had won Olympic gold as part of the U.S. men’s 400 free relay in 2016, joining a legendary squad as he followed Caeleb Dressel and Michael Phelps into the water and gave way to Nathan Adrian. During the ensuing victory ceremony, Held became emotional at the magnitude of his accomplishment, and Phelps reassured him that he belonged.

After that, a second Olympic appearance, another gold medal or two, maybe even an appearance in an individual event — a nice bow on a fine sprinting career. But after leaving Trials without a spot on the team, Held felt the urge to continue.

Now, Held says that he and his wife, former NC State swimmer Lexie (Lupton) Held, believe the result was “a blessing in disguise” because of what came next.

“I never would have went to ASU, never would have met (Arizona State head coach) Herbie (Behm), never would have met some of my best friends, training there at ASU. We probably wouldn’t have gotten the same dog, wouldn’t have had the same house at ASU,” Held said. “Look at all the great things that came from it.”

Training under Behm, Held achieved the most consistent success of his swimming career. He won his first individual medals on the international stage with a pair of silvers at the 2021 Short Course World Championships. He qualified for a pair of long course Worlds teams, winning one medal of each color in 2022 and another bronze in 2023.

Now, a second Olympic Games in Paris beckons, although Held was again forced to wait to learn his Olympic fate for sure. He placed fifth in the 100 free final, four hundredths shy of Hunter Armstrong and the top-four finish which would have automatically given him a spot on the team. But three years after Held was the lowest priority of the four potential American relay alternates, he was first this time, and when the U.S. team got its seventh double, with Carson Foster adding a 200 IM victory to his earlier win in the 400 IM, Held was officially picked up.

Held is 29, making him one of the oldest members of this year’s team. He will be part of a relay group now favored to win a third consecutive Olympic gold. The destination is the one Held hoped for when he moved to Arizona three years ago, but redemption is merely part of the story after the journey to this moment included some of the most special years of his life.

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