Simonas Bilis knows people were watching. How could they miss it? First Ryan Held’s tears of joy after winning a gold medal last week, then Bilis swimming in prime time on back-to-back nights.
For N.C. State’s resurgent swimming program, ACC and NCAA success was suddenly becoming international success. And Held and Bilis are the two best examples of how N.C. State has developed a program that can turn promising swimmers into Olympic medalists.
“When me and Ryan came in, we didn’t even think about the Olympics,” Bilis said Friday after finishing eighth in the 50-meter freestyle, competing in the final against Anthony Ervin, Nathan Adrian and other superstars of swimming.
“It just shows to recruits how well our coaches can develop swimmers. Over four years, I dropped so much time. Every year I would improve, showing that if you come to State you’re going to get faster. Everyone’s going to look at State differently.”
Held and Bilis are two of a school-record four N.C. State swimmers at the Olympics, the Wolfpack having sent three to Montreal in 1976 and Atlanta in 1996. What’s notable, though, is not the numbers, but the late-night, prime-time success. Held was part of the gold-medal winning U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay, and Bilis was an unexpected qualifier for Friday night’s final in the 50 free.
The breakthrough performance of these N.C. State swimmers is really the next step in the evolution of the Wolfpack’s swimming program, a process that began when Braden Holloway was hired in 2011 to resurrect a program with a proud history – 18 ACC titles in a 20-year span of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – that had slid over a period of years into irrelevance despite the recent Olympic success of sprinter Cullen Jones, who won two golds and two silvers in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
The past five years have seen continual improvement, from becoming competitive in the ACC to becoming competitive nationally, from winning ACC titles to podium finishes at the NCAA championships. Over the past three seasons, the Wolfpack went from 13th to eighth to fourth in NCAA competition – including a national title in the 4x100 freestyle relay, a team that included Held and Bilis – while finishing second in the ACC in 2014 and winning the conference title in 2015 and 2016.
Five years ago when he committed to N.C. State, we were just getting started. To be honest, N.C. State was not very good five years ago. He took a leap of faith. He kind of fell in our lap, for lack of a better term.
N.C. State associate head swimming coach Todd DeSorbo on Simonas Bilis
Bilis concluded his career this spring with his second straight ACC male swimmer of the year award, exiting as one of the most decorated swimmers in N.C. State history. And he did it after committing to the school almost by chance. His older brother swam at East Carolina, and Bilis reached out to N.C. State’s new coaching staff from Lithuania, not the other way around.
“We were really fortunate to get him, to be honest,” said N.C. State associate head coach Todd DeSorbo, who coaches the Wolfpack sprinters. “Five years ago when he committed to N.C. State, we were just getting started. To be honest, N.C. State was not very good five years ago. He took a leap of faith. He kind of fell in our lap, for lack of a better term.”
Bilis’ presence in Raleigh, and his success both for N.C. State and Lithuania, has been a catalyst in the program’s development. Held’s victory in Rio, as an American gold medalist, could mean even more.
The next step for N.C. State is proving its swimmers can transfer that success from the shorter course the NCAA uses (a 25-yard pool, requiring more turns and putting an emphasis on power) to the international long-course pool (a 50-meter pool, putting more of an emphasis on sustained speed). What’s happened in Rio is evidence it’s possible, especially Held’s improvement in his two years at N.C. State
He had been targeting the 2020 Olympics, but swam his way onto the relay team at the Olympic trials and was the only member of the team who swam in prelims in Rio to swim in the finals – where Held swam the third leg and Michael Phelps blew the competition away for gold.
“Maybe my personal story of me coming from four years ago not even winning the state title, got 10th or something in the 100 free, to now be on the Olympic relay, that’s probably more the fairy tale,” Held said.
With that, what was a year-to-year plan is now evolving into a four-year-to-four-year plan focused on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Our goal as a program and as a staff now is put some of our staff members on the U.S. Olympic staff,” DeSorbo said. “To do that, we need three, four or five athletes from N.C. State or our pro swimming group to make it to the U.S. Olympic team. This definitely is a turning point for us toward being a high-level NCAA program, what we hope might build into a center of excellence for sprinting in the United States, with swimmers having aspirations of making the Olympic team in four years.”
Danish swimmer Anton Ipsen, after winning his heat of the 1,500-meter freestyle Friday, made the Wolfpack hand signal with his fingers. Ipsen failed to advance, but like his N.C. State teammates, left an impression.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock