When N.C. State swimmer Ryan Held returned from Rio de Janeiro after winning a gold medal in the August 2016 Olympics, he was treated like a rock star.
For two weeks, he said.
Held swam the third leg of the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay as part of the U.S. team that included Nathan Adrian, Caeleb Dressel and 23-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps.
Standing with his teammates on top of the Olympic podium, gold medal around his neck, Held broke down in tears as the Star-Spangled Banner played, and the American flag was raised. His infectious raw emotion helped make him an instant celebrity.
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When the Olympics were over and Held was back at N.C. State, people recognized him everywhere. He was bombarded with questions like “How was the village?” “How was Rio?” And the most common: “How was Michael Phelps?”
“I would have to add about 20 minutes to wherever I was going,” Held said. “When someone recognizes you, and someone recognizes someone recognizing you, it sets off this chain reaction. So by the time you get done with one person, you have like a five-person line kind of starting up.”
Before the Rio Olympics, Held was virtually unknown. The commentators for USA swimming weren’t even familiar with him.
But his gold medal changed that – and in more ways than just the fame.
Held said when he came back from Rio, other swimmers started pushing themselves harder just to beat him. One of his teammates is even pushing lifetime bests in his times.
“I think everyone wants to win,” said Held, now a junior who swims freestyle and the butterfly for the Wolfpack. “Everyone wants to be No. 1. Everyone wants to beat Cal. Everyone wants to beat Texas.”
Including Held, N.C. State had four swimmers in the 2016 Olympics.
Simonas Bilis, who has exhausted all his years of eligibility, competed for Lithuania in the 50-meter freestyle and finished eighth. Senior Soren Dahl competed in the men’s 4 x 200-meter freestyle for Denmark and senior Anton Ipsen competed in the 400-meter freestyle for Denmark. Neither advanced to the finals.
Junior swimmer Hennessey Stuart said Held and the other Wolfpack Olympians motivated the other swimmers to step up and help N.C. State become the No. 1-ranked swimming and diving team in the country.
“All four of them got better after the Olympics,” Stuart said. “They elevated their games so much that it was contagious for us. When they get better, they are pushing us to get better.”
The Wolfpack will swim in the ACC championships on Saturday in Atlanta, where Held will likely swim the butterfly and freestyle.
Two weeks ago, the women’s swimming and diving team won the ACC championship, and the men’s diving team ranked 11th out of 11 teams in the ACC championships, held at Georgia Tech. The results will factor into the men’s swim team’s results.
The NCAA championships will begin March 22 and end March 25 in Indianapolis.
N.C. State’s men’s team, the two-time defending ACC champion, has gotten better each year. In 2014, it finished 13th in the NCAA championships. In 2015, the Pack finished eighth. And last year, the team finished fourth.
Held, Dahl, Bilis and teammate Andreas Schiellerup won the 4 x 100 free relay for N.C. State in the NCAA championships last year.
This season, Held has the third-best 50 freestyle time in the country at 19.09. He also holds the seventh-best time in the 100 freestyle at 42.40. Dahl has the 21st-best 200 freestyle time this year at 1:34:52, and Held has the 28th, with 1:34:62. Ipsen holds the seventh-best time in the 500 freestyle with a time of 4:13:40.
This season, the men’s swimming and diving team has finished first or won all 10 of its meets, including a win over then-No. 2 Texas.
But with a group of Olympians pushing the Wolfpack’s limits, the goal is a national title.
“I think it stretches everyone’s imagination at what they can actually achieve,” N.C. State men’s and women’s coach Braden Holloway said of having Olympians on the team. “It makes them not really create a ceiling for themselves. Since (Held) has been back, he’s continued to excel.”