At the U.S Olympic Swimming Trials in June in Omaha, Neb., nobody was talking about Ryan Held.
Even NBC’s colorful analyst Rowdy Gaines, usually prone to hyperbole, called Held a “no-name.”
But there he was, on the blocks in the 100-meter freestyle final. He had surpassed 104 other swimmers to stand there. The top six in this event would make Team USA’s 4×100 relay team at the Rio Olympics.
The Eagle Scout swimmer leaped into the water. His arms pinwheeled, and his legs fluttered. Exactly 48.26 seconds later, he was an Olympian.
The 21-year-old from Springfield, Ill., finished third in the trials, securing a spot in the 4×100-meter freestyle race on Sunday, Aug. 7.
“How about Ryan Held getting third?” Gaines told viewers after the race. “The no-name comes out of nowhere to get in there and make his team.”
Swimming and Scouting
Saying Held came from nowhere belies the dedication of a young man who has devoted more than half his life to swimming.
Held started swimming when he was 8. In seventh grade, he broke his leg playing soccer and decided to ditch contact sports and attack swimming with all his athletic might.
Despite the rigors of training to become a competitive swimmer, Held made time to be a Boy Scout. But it wasn’t always easy.
“I really struggled to find time with Scouts and practice, too, but as an athlete you need mental breaks from performing and practicing,” Held told me by email this week. “A lot of people are true believers in the thought you can’t miss practice or your season is done for. No one is going to lose anything by missing a practice once a week.”
In swimming, where months of training might end in split-second defeat, the stress level is high. So Held relished his time as a Boy Scout — time where he could just be a kid.
“Scouting was just the perfect break because it taught me valuable skills but also provided a stress-free environment,” he says.
Exhibit A: the National Order of the Arrow Conference at Indiana University, where Held learned to be a better Arrowman in a fun, carefree setting.
“It was so much fun, filled with copious amounts of root beer and square dancing,” he says.
Held earned Eagle in 2010, at age 15. For his Eagle project, he built a memorial at the local grade school for a student who had died. Held says working on that project and completing the requirements for Eagle changed him for the better.
“Scouting is undervalued,” he says. “Because of Scouting, I feel I am much more worldly and knowledgeable — from national politics to working a jigsaw to finding my way on a map.”
‘Anybody can make it’
In the water, Held swims like he has a propeller attached. He specializes in the 50- and 100-meter sprints, and his incredible speed propelled him to break several state and national records.
But he didn’t forgo academics. He was a member of the National Honor Society and an Academic All-American.
To recap: elite student, elite swimmer, Eagle Scout. He won’t be a “no-name” for long.
High school success led to a spot on the swim team at North Carolina State University, where he led the team to its first title in the 4×100 relay.
And now he’s an Olympian.
Held is one of six swimmers in Rio who will vie for the four spots on the relay team.
It all happens on Sunday, Aug. 7. The relay heats begin at 2:05 p.m. Eastern; the final is set for 10:54 p.m. The races will be broadcast live on NBC.
The four who will swim in the qualifying heats won’t necessarily be the four who swim in the finals.
“They’re going to put the four fastest guys on the relay, and whoever they believe is the four fastest guys, that is who’s going on,” Held told his local newspaper.
But whether Held races in the heats, the finals or both, he’ll be eligible for a medal. The final swimmers and the preliminary swimmers all receive Olympic medals.
Held and his teammates have the chance to return the U.S. to Olympic glory in one of swimming’s most exciting events. The U.S. was once dominant in the 4×100 — winning four golds in a row from 1984 to 1996. But from 2000 to 2012, Team USA won just one gold — in 2008 in Beijing.
The world will be watching to see if Held and Team USA can reclaim glory.
Whatever happens, Held is proof that greatness can have humble beginnings.
“Anybody can make it,” he says. “Everyone is just a kid from somewhere at one point in their life.”