N.C. State swimmer Ryan Held achieved international glory by winning a gold medal in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay at the Rio Olympics, then found national fame for his reaction to the accomplishment – crying on the medal podium.
On Tuesday, however, Held was all smiles as he threw out the first pitch at Durham Bulls Athletic Park for his first public appearance back in the Triangle.
“Two weeks ago, I was on Copacabana Beach, just sitting back in a lawn chair drinking coconut water out of an actual coconut, and then last week, I was in wildlife management class at N.C. State just taking notes,” he said. “The transition I’ve had from two weeks to last week to right now, it’s a little crazy, but I’m glad to be back to more normalcy.”
Held was the man of the hour, but the medal itself — dangling from a tropical-colored ribbon around his neck — proved to be the real celebrity.
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The security staff at the stadium entrance were amazed by what they saw after asking him, per standard protocol, to open his bag, Held said. And just minutes before the start of a critical playoff-race game against the Columbus Clippers, a number of Bulls players seemingly couldn’t help but ask to touch, look at or take a picture with the 2.4-inch circle of gold.
“Whenever I pull this medal out, I just think of it as a medal, as an honor and whatnot,” Held said. “I kind of forget that to other people, this is something crazy ridiculous that they maybe see once in their lifetime.”
Held played Tee-Ball for two years as a kid but hadn’t thrown a baseball in upwards of five years before practicing with some Wolfpack teammates Monday. But he said he was optimistic about the cameo on the mound, and true to his word, he comfortably tossed the pitch into the mit of Bulls pitcher Jake Faria from 60 feet, 6 inches away.
This time, there were no tears in the spotlight.
“There was Tebowing, and Cam Newton did the dab, now the new thing is people are ‘Ryaning,’” he said. “It’s not really embarrassing. I really embrace it because those emotions were genuine on the podium.”