Ryan Held Reflects On Brutality Of the Sport and Growth Opportunities In Missing Tokyo Games


Ryan Held Reflects On Brutality Of the Sport and Growth opportunities In Missing Tokyo Games

The long-awaited Tokyo Olympic Games are underway, with the swimming events hours from starting. Team USA is made up of both fresh and familiar faces. One notable absence is 2016 Olympic gold medalist Ryan Held, who shared the pool and podium with Caeleb Dressel, Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian in the 400-meter freestyle relay in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Despite placing sixth in the 100-meter free in June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Held was denied a bid to Tokyo due to the USA Swimming Selection of Relay Only Swimmers rule 1.3.6. Based on world rankings, Held was the 13th qualified relay-only athlete and, thereby, the only one omitted from the allowable 12 member relay-only squad.

“Trials was filled with a lot of emotions,” Held shared recently. “Going into the meet, I didn’t think my situation would be inhibiting to my performance.”

Held said he had been training well and has never been one to make excuses. His mindset, like many swimmers in attendance, was that the work was done, and the chips would fall as they may. The delay of Olympic Trials and the additional year gave many swimmers a shared feeling of relief when they finally got to step on the pool deck in Omaha, Nebraska. There was that same feeling for Held. Despite his almost two-hour daily commute to and from Birmingham to train, the lack of camaraderie and support from a training group, and having to do weights in Coach Coley Stickels‘ homemade gym, he had made it to the meet.

“Once I was there and felt the reprieve of making it to Trials, I knew I had to focus,” Held said. “It was a strange meet for me though. It was my first time going to a swim meet truly alone.”

Without a team, he said it was both a lonely and a somewhat boring situation.

“It’s dangerous to be at a meet at that level, where you are mostly alone, with your thoughts,” Held recalled.


Photo Courtesy: CG Sports Network

After his 200-meter freestyle, Held felt excited to compete in his best event, the 100 free. Held took care of business in both prelims and semifinals. He put himself in the position to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the second time. However, in the finals, he touched sixth. Without even knowing about the 12-relay-only swimmer rule, he had already felt disappointed. He placed third in the finals in 2016. Not knowing if there would be enough multi-event swimmers on the roster, he was not sure if the team would be able to include six swimmers for both the 100 and 200 freestyle. Despite taking care of his body going into the 50 meter freestyle later in the lineup, Held said he, “didn’t mentally recover after that 100.” As seen by spectators, Held was his usual goofy self, but he “felt tired before (he) even got up to the blocks.” Held said he tried to put the 100 past himself but said it “felt like a punch to the mouth” and that he was trying to respond to that. Despite doing his warmup routine and staying loose behind the blocks, the race did not go in his favor.

“It was a rough few nights that followed,” Held said. “I was frustrated. I had a lot of questions like why and how. I thought about all of the factors that contributed to my results.”

He did a lot of reflecting on how his past year had been leading into the Games. Held had great momentum the year prior, coming off of the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships where he set the U.S. Open record with a 47.43 100 freestyle.

“I was super stoked after my 2019 season and that unexpected record,” he said.

Held said that summer gave him a lot of confidence in his training that he carried with him into that next year. The months following that meet, Held was training with an established pro group at the University of Alabama. However, his positive training environment came to a screeching halt in March 2020 due to COVID-19 related closures. Flash forward several months to when he would be able to return to Tuscaloosa, only to have the pre-Covid training environment drastically altered by group member retirements and relocations and changes with coaching and policy at the University of Alabama. No longer being able to use Alabama’s facilities, Held and Egyptian Olympian, Ali Khalafalla, trained at the Birmingham CrossPlex.

“With only two people, the energy was not the same as I had been used to,” Held said, referring to his training at N.C. State, Indiana University and Alabama. “With it being a weird year, my life pretty much became being at my apartment, driving to the pool or doing weights and dryland in Coley’s basement. There was not a lot of different stimuli.”

Held said his Trials results could have been based on a bunch of reasons or none of those reasons. He kept faith in his training, but at the end of the day it is all about what one can do in the moment.

“One of my biggest takeaways from Trials is that this sport can be brutal,” he said. “You can do all the right things but sometimes life doesn’t go exactly the way you want it to.”


Photo Courtesy: Sarah D. Davis/theACC.com

Held said the toughest part about the meet was watching the men’s 1500. At this point in the meet, “knowing about the 12-swimmer rule and that they were only taking five relay guys stung.” Despite many frustrations, Held said: “It’s unfair to say swimming is unfair. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s day.”

In 2016, he had his day and it had been a long journey leading to making his first Olympic Team. During the 2012 Olympic Trials, Held watched from his hometown in Springfield, Illinois. Like many young swimmers, he watched the 2012 Olympic Trials enamored with the best swimmers competing at the highest level. Just about every young swimmer dreams about being an Olympian, but for Held, that still seemed like a “far-fetched” goal. At that point, Held said he was barely competitive as a long-course swimmer, with short course being more of his forte. At the time, his team was limited in their long-course training, only being able to train meters a few warm months out of the year and with very crowded lanes. Still, Held dreamed of making a team where he could have an American flag cap that read, “Held.”

A multi-time state champion and record holder, he graduated in 2014 as the Illinois State Swimmer of the Year. Then, attending North Carolina State University, Held really began to hit his stride. College is a big transition from club swimming. The environment is different and so are the opportunities. One specific opportunity was that Held now had access to a 50-meter pool year-round. Held shared: “I could train long course way more often, with a max of three guys in a lane.” He said it gave him a better feel for the longer pool and the results showed. In 2014, he went a 51.25 in the 100 free. The following summer, Held dropped to a 49.17. That time placed him in the top-15 in the nation and with only one year out from the 2016 Olympic Trials, his Olympic dream became more of a reality. Dropping a few more tenths opened up a great possibility of finishing in the top six. However, Held shared that “that whole year I trained like I wanted to be No. 1 or No. 2.”

Many in the athletic world articulate that it’s “not one big thing, but a bunch of little things” that are the real game changers at the end of the season. Held said: “I was really focused and really dedicated. For example, if I had a single bad turn during a workout I would stay after to work on turns. I would practice until I nailed my turns.” Held felt like he was on an upward trajectory and his dream of representing Team USA would come to fruition.

That Olympic experience gave him great confidence. That confidence built up in such a way that ultimately worked to his disadvantage.

“After making the team in 2016, I thought there was no way I wouldn’t be on track to make the World Championships Team,” he said.

However, Held said he was filled with hubris come World Championship Trials in 2017. Missing out on making the Worlds team reminded him of the truly competitive nature of earning a roster spot for the most elite meets and that new swimmers were always on the rise like he once was. Representing Team USA at the World University Games that summer instead was eye opening.

Following that summer, Held said he had a renewed drive and vision. He was both humbled and motivated heading into the 2018 long course season. On track to have a successful summer, Held felt self-assured in his training and his humility. He knew this would be an important season as three teams were being selected off of the 2018 Phillips 66 Nationals, including the FINA World Championships team, Pan American Games team, and Pan Pacific Championships team. Unfortunately, Held faced another setback. He got sick right before the meet and did not perform nearly up to the level he was tracking. Following what he called his “second disappointing year in a row,” he was on the fence about the sport and whether or not he should continue in his professional career.


Photo Courtesy: Sarah D. Davis/theACC.com

Following a very strong Short Course World Championships, he had his answer. Knowing his love for the sport, the success he had, and the potential he believed he possessed, he recommitted: “Who am I kidding? I am going to go for it.”

Held’s journey has taught him a lot about how he best trains, the right kind of environment for him, and how he responds to unexpected circumstances. He continues to find ways to grow.

“The way to handle setbacks is to self-reflect,” Held said. “I am always actively thinking about how things went and how things can be different. Adversity is part of life and it is all about how you respond. Even if it is a painful memory, are you going to let it break you or are you going to come back stronger?”

Held says he needs to continue to work on the mentality-based aspect of the sport.

“This was a year for a lot of firsts. I have learned a lot about myself, the importance of swimming with a team, and keeping things fresh.”

In keeping things fresh, Held is excited for a fresh start with a new swim season. He will compete in the International Swim League, Season Three, as part of the Los Angeles Current.

“I think it’ll be a huge season with a lot of high performance swimmers,” he said. “I am all-in for this season and can hopefully score my team a lot of points.”


  1. avatar
    Mary Linn

    I always thought swimming was a silent and individual sport, so interesting to learn otherwise. Appreciate Ryan’s openness about his hopes, dreams & disappointments & delighted to learn his upbeat response to starting strong in a new season. I wish him the best.

  2. avatar
    Barbara Smith Gross, IL

    Over this past weekend, I celebrated my 65th at a beautiful downtown Chicago hotel. Before checkout my husband went in for a swim and I went in on the shallow side for a dip. Next to me an amazing swimmer had me gawking in awe of his speed and form. I guessed he was an Olympian; sure enough I spotted his tattoo on his shoulder.
    After he rested a moment I asked which Olympics he was in:. 2016 he responded with a grin only such an accomplishment could elicit.
    It was a highlight of my weekend to meet such an athlete, and afterwards I regretted not waiting until he was finished to capture a photo with this American hero.
    To paraphrase Arnold, “he’ll be back”!

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