By Bob Schaller | Wednesday, October 26, 2016Ryan Held won the respect of his North Carolina State teammates with his standout performances in a diverse list of events, then won social media’s heart with his open display of emotions after he and his three teammates dug deep in the final of the 400 free relay to win gold in Rio. The Wolfpack junior shares what he learned at Olympic Trials, the great chemistry among the U.S. men’s and Olympic swim team members, and what the response to his award-ceremony emotions means to him in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1 Congratulations on a great Olympics, what was it like coming home?
Ryan: Coming home was wild! Coming home to my college city of Raleigh was so nice with my friends, teammates and coaches all congratulating me.
2 And your grand welcome back home in Illinois, how incredible was that?
Ryan: Right. So when I went home to Springfield (Illinois), it was wild. I felt like I had the paparazzi (laughs) following me! I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized, and it was just wonderful.
3 I saw the media coverage -- how much did it mean to you with how all out they went on this celebration?
Ryan: It mean everything. I went to high school football game -- it was wonderful. The whole thing was so nice, it was just so fun. I don’t view myself as a rock star or celebrity or anything like that. But at the football game that night, there was a pack of kids, maybe 8 to 10 years old or so, who followed me around. And to these kids, what I did and having me there meant a lot, and that’s pretty cool for me because no lot ago, I was those kids, in those exact same shoes as an age-group swimmer.
4 What does one do exactly with a key to the city?
Ryan: The key to the city, that was amazing -- I didn’t know that was a real thing! And I got a day named after me in Springfield, and a day in Illinois, and a big old road -- the feeling you get from that outpouring of support is just incredible.
5 Your sports information director told me the balance early with media and academics -- as an Academic All-ACC member -- is a tough balance when you got back with all the media and everything, how did you adapt to handle it?
Ryan: Oh, it was definitely an adjustment. And the funny thing is, once I got back to it, I am sitting the first week (of classes) in a wildlife management class, and after writing two pages of notes and trying to stay all caught up, I stopped and thought: A week ago I was in Rio at the Olympics, and on the beach drinking coconut water out of a coconut, and now I am in a classroom back at school! So I was thinking, “Wow, life has changed so much!”
6 What were your expectations for Olympic Trials when you went to Omaha?
Ryan: Honestly my coach, Todd DeSorbo, and I were thinking the whole summer that we’d try to make top eight final (in the 100 free) because once you get there, you just have to beat two people and hopefully they’ll take six. I was hoping just to make the top eight and to hopefully have that chance and get sixth.
7 So many fast swimmers in that event all with that same goal, how did you handle it mentally?
Ryan: I didn’t put a whole lot of pressure on myself going into the meet. I was in a win-win situation because I was, honestly , a no-name. So if I made the A final, I achieved my goal. But if not, certainly no one had pegged me to make the Olympic. And just going to Olympic Trials is such an honor, to compete on one of the top stages in the world! So I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself.
8 Still though, as events unfolded and you got closer to the goal of an A final, and even making the team, how did you approach it?
Ryan: I was ranked second after prelims, and I thought, “I just have to repeat that success tonight and make the A final.” I just kept telling myself, “Do what you do.”
9 Did it get even more intense after the semifinal?
Ryan: After the semifinal, I was thinking about the movie Hoosiers, about how this pool is just like the others, 50 meters down, 50 meters back. I have done the 100 hundreds of times, I just wanted to swim my best race.
10 You made the team in the 4 x 100, no easy feat with such great depth, but you took third and were just 3-hundredths of a second out of second place to swim individually, how did you react to that?
Ryan: No reaction at all right afterward because I was just so happy to make the team. It was a dream come true. I got questions like, “You were just .03 away (from making it individually), how do you feel about that?” I was like, “Look at who I lost to.” Nathan Adrian, the gold medallist and one of the great all-time sprinters, and Caeleb Dressel, the American record holders who has swum one of the fastest times ever. So I couldn’t be upset with who I lost to -- two of the best 100 freestylers in the world. LIke I said earlier, I had no expectations of making the team. So to be that close in making it individually, I was thrilled.
11 Townley Haas and Blake Pieroni said that group with you, the Texas guys, and Caeleb was perhaps the best possible scenario for training camp, was it that way for you as well?
Ryan: Definitely having guys my age was a big help. Having a bunch Townley, Jack, Caeleb, Gunnar, Jay, Blake, Jordan, Chase -- having those guys helped so much, because as a younger guy you could relate better to them than the older guys in terms of experience and what you were thinking, and all in our group brought a unique set of experiences and different perspective.
12 That veteran group was one for the ages, wasn’t it?
Ryan: That mix of veterans and new or younger people was great. We had all these great veteran swimmers, guys who you aspire to be like. Michael, Conor, David, Michael, Anthony Ervin, Nathan Adrian -- guys you aspire to be like because they embody all the qualities you want in a great leader. And it was hard to pick a team captain because so many of those guys would have been such great team captions. They have all those qualities you like.
13 What was it like to help secure gold for yourself and the U.S. and build on the legacy of Michael Phelps?
Ryan: It was so cool to be on a relay with Michael Phelps and help him build on his legacy of being the greatest Olympian of all time. It’s unbelievable to see his swims and effort.
14 What did Michael say to you before the relay and just being on that relay with him?
Ryan: It was so cool to be on a relay with the guy I had a poster of in my room growing up. And it was amazing standing next to him getting our medals, and on the block before the race, and in the ready room. I was like, “Wow, this is my idol here. And now he’s my teammate.” Then you look around and there is Australia, Brazil, France, Canada -- all these great teams, but like Michael said, the 4 x 100 is our baby, this is the race we want the most. We have a lot of national pride in winning that race.
15 That celebration after was pretty neat, what did Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian say?
Ryan: Michael put his arms around us and said, “We did it boys. We brought it back to the US. We did it. It’s back in the U.S.” Nathan said, “Take it in, remember this.” Caeleb and I looked at the crowd, and all the intensity around the race and knew we’d remember this moment rest of our lives.
16 You’ve mentioned Nathan Adrian several times, what was Nathan like as a teammate, team captain, and as a fellow sprinter, what did you learn from him?
Ryan: Nathan was very interesting to talk to. So Nathan is surprisingly very quiet. I was surprised by that because he puts so much on Instagram and tweets a lot -- I was surprised by how quiet he is. That’s the nature of the beast that he is. He always has his, parka on because he hates being cold and is always deep in thought, but that makes him even wiser -- he knows his body, how he should feel, how a set should feel and what he liked or disliked about it, and how his legs feel. So he learns from every swim and processes it. Before that I was kind of like the guy who would just go for it and get the work done, not thinking about how body feels, so I learned a lot about that from him.
17 How much did it help to have another guy more your age in Caeleb Dressel on the relay?
Ryan: Oh that was so nice to have Caeleb on that relay. He was this ball of stress release. And so talented. You know Caeleb as the guy who is just a goofy kid who always has a smile or is cracking a joke, which makes him always good to be around. If it was three of the older guys, it might’ve been harder -- i would have been stressed out (laughs) of my mind being on the relay with three top dogs. So it would’ve been stress overload, maybe even a shut down emotoinally because I would have been so worried about letting my team down and impressing these three guys rather than swimming my race to help them. Having Caeleb there was so important.
18 Your emotional reaction, the tears getting the medial, was priceless -- a lot of people love to see that display of raw emotion -- what did the strong, positive reaction on social media mean to you, and did it maybe catch you off guard?
Ryan: That’s going to definitely be a treasure that I will keep and think about for the rest of my life -- just how special that moment was. And I have the greatest olympian, the greatest swimmer in his history and greatest athlete of all-time, put his arm around me and said, “Hey, come on bud, have fun, enjoy it, you just won a gold medal!” meant so much.
19 That’s awesome he told you to enjoy it -- did you?
Ryan: Trust me, I was having a blast in that moment getting our gold, but just the emotion of where I was four years ago, or even two months ago, where I wasn’t even a top 15 sprinter in the U.S. -- I think I was 16th after US Nationals -- and there I am on the Olympic final podium winning gold with Michael Phelps and his around me, what a memory I have for the rest of my life.
20 And on that U.S. team were perhaps the most diverse, incredible women ever -- Simone Manuel winning the first-ever individual gold by a U.S. African American woman, Lia Neal becoming the first African American women to win medals in two straight Olympics, Dana Vollmer as a Mom extending her legacy, Maya DiRado’s performance for the ages, Katie Ledecky making history -- a pretty great group?
Ryan: That was so cool, seeing the women’s team succeed again and again -- having those superstars on the team just made you proud to be part of Team USA. Seeing those women bond and how they came together, and how they were all so different in where they were in life, where they were from, their age, and yet make history and national headlines with these incredible achievements -- seeing up close and what went into it was amazingly amazingly beautiful.
In Part II next week, Ryan takes you through the atmosphere of the Olympics, what he learned growing up as an age-group and high school swimmer, and what his goals are as he competes collegiately and works toward making the team again for 2020.
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