N.C. State swimmer Ryan Held will have a body alteration before heading to Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics.
Held says he will have a tattoo – the five Olympic rings – placed on the back of his left shoulder. Other swimmers do it, a lasting reminder.
“You’re an Olympian forever,” Held said Thursday, smiling.
Held didn’t expect to be saying that or have the new art so soon. Maybe in 2020, but not 2016.
Like most swimmers, Held had the dream of one day being a U.S. Olympian. Unlike most swimmers, he achieved that dream and will compete in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at Rio, his eyes on a medal and podium finish.
“What kid doesn’t say he wants to go the Olympics when he starts swimming, when he starts any kind of sport?” Held said. “It’s hard to believe as a 21-year-old, this is just the start of my swimming career.”
Had he touched the wall a tad quicker at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., Held would have finished in the top two in the 100-meter freestyle and qualified to swim for an individual medal in the Olympics. Nathan Adrian was the winner, and Caeleb Dressel, the University of Florida star and NCAA champion, beat Held out by three one-hundreds of a second.
What kid doesn’t say he wants to go the Olympics when he starts swimming, when he starts any kind of sport?
NC State Olympic swimmer Ryan Held
But third place got Held to Rio. It got him on the U.S. Olympic relay team. It also had N.C. State swim coach Braden Holloway and his staff wildly celebrating in the stands in Omaha’s CenturyLink Center – the YouTube video got wide play.
“A lot of people have asked me if that race was a disappointment, what went wrong with that race, what went right,” Held said. “Honestly, what went wrong was maybe that last stroke. But what went right was everything.
“Yes, it would have been nice to be second. But, no, I can’t be disappointed with third. I lost to the two who are arguably the best in the world. I lost to Nathan Adrian, the 2012 gold Olympic medalist, and I lost to Caeleb Dressel, the fastest American swimmer ever in short-course yards. I can’t be too disappointed.”
Pack sends four
Held will be one of four N.C. State swimmers in Rio, although the only one on the U.S. team. Simonas Bilis will be competing for Lithuania, and Soren Dahl and Anton Ipsen for Denmark.
Held, Dahl, Bilis and Andreas Schiellerup gave the Wolfpack a victory in the 4x100 free relay in the NCAA Championships this year. Held usually swam the first leg for the Pack and may do that for the U.S. in Rio.
Former Wolfpack swimmer Cullen Jones won a gold medal in the 400 free relay in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, gold in the 400 medley and silver medals in the 400 free relay and the 50 freestyle in the 2012 London Games. The Pack has twice had three men’s swimmers in an Olympics – in 1976 in Montreal and 1996 in Atlanta – but never four.
“All four of us going to the Olympics is a huge thing for our program,” Held said. “It kind of builds a name for N.C. State.”
The sun was rising Thursday morning and the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” could be heard as the Wolfpack swimmers made their way into the Willis R. Casey Aquatics Center on campus.
“Ride like the wind at double speed, I’ll take you places that you’ve never, never seen …”
Early morning starts are a staple for swimmers, at all levels. It speaks to their dedication and discipline, and the two-hour swimming workout that followed Thursday was routine and uneventful but also done precisely and with a purpose.
Held, Bilis and Dahl worked in adjoining lanes while Ipsen was a few lanes away. Bilis will swim the 50- and 100-meter freestyle for Lithuania at Rio. Dahl will swim on Denmark’s 4x200 free relay team and Ipsen will be in the 400- and 1500-meter freestyle for the Danes.
“Leap of faith”
Bilis, the 2016 ACC male swimmer of the year, was a senior this season and a big part of N.C. State’s men’s team winning the ACC title and finishing fourth in the NCAA Championships. Dahl was a junior and Held and Ipsen sophomores.
Holloway said Bilis committing to N.C. State was an important step for his program, calling it a “leap of faith.” The others soon followed.
“Every year we talk about getting better, getting higher recruits, getting a higher place in the NCAAs,” Held said. “This is great start to getting those top-end recruits who want to come because they can see that we’re producing talent.”
The interview session Thursday was in a newly remodeled women’s locker room in the natatorium. In recalling the men’s old one, Held said, “We had middle-school type lockers … and maybe four wooden benches.”
Held, from Springfield, Ill., signed with the Pack despite the facilities, saying, “I fell in love with the team, the coaches, and really liked the school, the academic program.”
Held trained Thursday under the watchful eye of associate head coach Todd DeSorbo, who is the Pack’s sprint and development specialist. Last August, DeSorbo said he told Held that with continued improvement he could be an Olympian – in Rio, not in 2020.
“I told him I’m going to say it one time and not say it again, because I didn’t want to put pressure or expectations on him,” DeSorbo said.
Held said a good time in the 100 free in the U.S. Open last year already had him thinking, “OK, this could be a reality and I could make the Olympic team.”
Held said he “kicked up” his training. He said he trimmed a half-second off his personal best in the 50 free and a full second off the 100 and 200 freestyle.
His strokes, he said, were smoother and longer. He could propel himself faster without wasting any energy.
Held won ACC titles this year in the 50 and 100 freestyle, and on four winning relay teams. He was seventh in the 50 free in the NCAAs and fourth in the 100 freestyle.
Then came Omaha.
“We knew what he was capable of,” DeSorbo said. ”But at that meet you don’t know if people were going to get behind the blocks and freak out.”
Held kept his composure and never panicked.
“He’s so young to the sport, he’s so young to that scene, it’s almost like he doesn’t know any better,” Holloway said. “He was just kind of having fun and it worked to his advantage.”
Held’s brief Twitter bio (@heldilox) reflects some of his personality. To wit: “Buddha belly, PhD in story telling, avid watcher of cat videos.”
Held laughed Thursday – although not as hard as Holloway and his teammates – when that was brought up, then tried to explain.
“The ‘Buddha belly’ …. most of the time when I sit I poof my stomach out and it makes me look fatter than I actually am and the nickname is ‘Buddha,’” he said.
Held said his story-telling, in truth, is horrifically bad, that his stories ramble and have no good punch lines. As for the cat videos …
“I’m allergic to cats,” he said. “I love cats. I can only look at them on videos.”
Another personal aside: the backdrop on his phone has a photo of Florent Manaudou, the 2012 gold medalist in the 50 free, and Brazilian star Cesar Cielo, a world record-holder in the 100 free.
Held said one of his goals before the Trials had been to make a U.S. national team, maybe for the University Games, and perhaps have a chance to swim against men he called two of his “idols.”
Manaudou will be in Rio. In a shocker, Cielo did not qualify to compete for Brazil in his home Olympics.
After Held’s third-place finish at the Trials, TV swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines called him one of the “no-name” swimmers who qualified. Held wants to change that.
“Definitely, yeah,” he said. “Hopefully I can prove myself worthy enough to be on that relay team and start making a name for myself.”