A year ago, N.C. State’s Ryan Held was in Rio, swimming to an Olympic gold medal, shedding those famous tears on the victory stand.
The medal around his neck, the national anthem being played and the U.S. flag being raised, Held lost it. Michael Phelps, who has 28 Olympic medals and is everybody’s big brother on the U.S. swim team and its biggest swimming hero, rubbed the back of Held’s head as American hearts melted.
“I pretty much became a rock star overnight,” Held said.
After making all the media rounds in Rio, Held returned to Raleigh and N.C. State. He pounded the drum before a Carolina Panthers game. He sounded the warning siren at a Carolina Hurricanes game. He threw out the first pitch at a Durham Bulls game.
“It was like everybody knew me, everybody wanted a little piece of me, everybody wanted to hear what I had to say,” Held said in an interview this week.
In early September, Held sat on the front of a fire truck as it paraded through his hometown of Springfield, Ill., to his high school, Sacred Heart-Griffin. Held was recognized in a ceremony at a football game and Bruce Rauner, the governor of Illinois, declared Sept 2, 2016 as “Ryan Held Day” in the state of Illinois.
Pretty heady stuff. As Held said, “I was just trying to keep myself with kind of one foot on the ground, keep myself humble, remembering who I was, where I came from.”
But instant fame can be as suffocating as it is flattering. As Held put it, he went from being an “average college swimmer” to an Olympian to a gold-medal winner to “Cryin’ Ryan.”
Held had never represented the U.S. in an international event before qualifying for the Rio Olympics. On Aug. 7, 2016, he walked out with Phelps, Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel for the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, knowing he would swim the third leg — after Phelps.
Phelps gave the U.S. the lead. Held kept it. Adrian did his thing in the final 100 and the anthem soon was being played and the U.S. flag raised high. Held calls it the “Golden Moment.”
And then Held came back for his junior year of college.
“I think the last year has been pretty big roller coaster ride for him,” said Braden Holloway, N.C. State’s head swimming coach. “It was kind of weird time after Rio, because you come from the pinnacle of swimming, but the cool thing was it allowed him to kind of focus more on just the team and not have as much pressure individually.”
Held’s junior year ended with the Wolfpack again dominating the ACC and Held named ACC men’s swimmer of the year. But there was disappointment to follow, Held said.
In Held’s first two years, the Wolfpack finished eighth and fourth in the NCAA Championships. The Pack wanted better in 2017 but again finished fourth as Texas won a third straight NCAA title.
“Because we were on such a climb, to get fourth again we felt like we all failed,” Held said. “To finish fourth again was like ‘Oh, crud.’”
The Wolfpack won the 800-yard freestyle relay, but no one could catch Dressel, the Florida flash, in the sprints.
“Everybody is chasing him,” said Held, a runnerup to Dressel in the 50-yard free at the NCAAs.
Another downer for Held came when he failed to qualify for the U.S. team headed to Budapest, Hungary, for the 2017 World Championships. Some of Held’s Wolfpack teammates would go — Justin Ress for the U.S., Andreas Vazaius for Greece — but Held stayed home.
“I felt like I let myself down, I let Springfield down, I let N.C. State down,” Held said. “I felt because I didn’t make the World Championship team, it was like ‘Oh, N.C State, we’re going to lose in recruiting, we are not going to be as well-known, people aren’t going to like us as much.’
“I just put all this pressure on myself and it probably took about two weeks to get out of this slump after World Champ trials. Then I let it go and life really shot up like an escalator ride from there.”
Instead of going to Budapest, Held went to Greensboro.
Held won three events in the N.C. Long Course Senior Championships. Just for fun, he even swam the 50 backstroke time trial in a respectable 24.95 seconds.
Held, 22, will soon be back in international competition. He and Ress are on the U.S. team that will compete in the 2017 World University Games in Taipei City, Taiwan. Holloway is on the U.S. coaching staff.
Held said if anyone at N.C. State might be the “next Ryan Held” and suddenly emerge internationally, it could be Ress. The junior from Cary won the 50 backstroke in the U.S. Nationals/World Championship qualifying — topping Matt Grevers and Ryan Murphy, the past two Olympic champions in the 100-meter backstroke — before finishing sixth in the Worlds.
“He can definitely be more than the ‘next Ryan Held.’ He can be the next Ryan Lochte or Ryan Murphy,” Held said. “He has a ton of potential.”
Held and Ress said the goal for the Pack this year is a national championship, nothing less. But Held’s senior year will be without Todd DeSorbo, the former Pack assistant coach who worked closely with Held the first three years. DeSorbo recently was named head coach at Virginia.
“I was sad to see coach leave,” Held said. “But honestly, there are different ways to tell people to go fast.”
On Wednesday, Held and Ress swam side by side at the N.C. State natatorium, Holloway watching them churn the water.
“They feed off each other, race each other, push each other,” Holloway said.
While Dressel’s success motivates Held, his Olympic success can be a spur for Ress and the others. The gold medal isn’t far away — locked in a safe in NCSU’s business office, Held said -- and available when he needs to pull it out.
“It shows us that anyone has a chance, at any given meet, to do well,” Ress said.
Ress had to wait to congratulate Held after he returned from Rio, saying Held’s phone had “blown up.” Ress, with a smile, also added, “We made fun of him a little, would imitate him on the podium.”
Of course, Cryin’ Ryan. A year later, Held says all that never bothered him.
“It was true emotion from me,” he said. “I got a ton more compliments about it than I did jabs about it. It was all fun.”
Something he wouldn’t mind repeating — in 2020, in the Tokyo Olympics.