Scott Fowler

Tears of gold: N.C. State swimmer Ryan Held helps U.S. win 4x100 Olympic relay

The late N.C. State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano said in his most famous speech that “if you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day.”

Current N.C. State swimmer Ryan Held had a very full day Sunday, doing all of those things – plus winning an Olympic gold medal.

Held swam the third leg for the U.S. men’s 4x100 freestyle relay team Sunday night, holding onto the lead handed to him by Michael Phelps. Nathan Adrian finished it off with a strong anchor leg for the Americans, who avenged their loss to France in the same event in the 2012 Olympics.

Not long after that, Held was on the medal stand with the three other American relay swimmers. As the U.S. flag was raised and the national anthem played, Held broke down. Not just a few tears, either – a full-out bout of sobbing, with Phelps patting him on the back and other teammates hugging Held as he looked down and tried to control his emotions.

“I’ve heard the national anthem thousands of times before, but there was something different about this one,” said Held, a rising junior at N.C. State. “I just couldn’t hold back the tears.”

The victory served to give Phelps his 19th Olympic gold medal. It served to give Held his first.

In fact, Held had never even been on an international team until this meet. Said Held: “I was just thinking about all my friends back in Raleigh and Illinois (his home state) and everyone cheering me on. ... Those emotions kind of manifested on the podium.”

Not long after that, Held was laughing with his teammates and hamming it up with his newly acquired gold medal. It was the end of a memorable day that had started in earnest early Sunday afternoon, when Held swam the second leg of the U.S. team’s 4x100 relay preliminary.

That first swim had also made him nervous, but he performed well. He had the second-fastest time among the U.S.’s four preliminary swimmers, with SwimMAC’s Anthony Ervin coming in No. 1. The U.S. had held back its top three 100 freestyle swimmers – Phelps, Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel – meaning only one American swimmer from the preliminary was going to “graduate” to the final.

Ervin seemed like the logical choice, but he still has an individual event left in these Olympics – the 50 freestyle – and at age 35 he doesn’t have as much energy in the tank as the 21-year-old Wolfpack swimmer. Held could afford to give it his all, because he was a one-and-done relay swimmer in these Olympics (although in the 2020 Olympics, he hopes to qualify in multiple events).

So Held it was. U.S. men’s Olympic head coach Bob Bowman gave him the word 30 minutes after the preliminary was over: Get ready, Ryan, because you’re swimming tonight.

Held held it together for awhile, thinking about what it meant.

“At first, I kept my composure,” Held said. “And about five minutes later, I called my mother bawling.”

Phelps is Phelps

In the race itself, Dressel led off for the U.S. and was No. 2 behind France after the first leg. But Phelps had a monstrous performance, grabbing a lead of nearly a body length in the No. 2 slot. Held then swam a very respectable split of 47.73 seconds and Adrian closed in 46.97 as the U.S. won by 0.61 seconds over France with a time of 3:09.92.

Phelps laughed his way through the medal ceremony, obviously delighted with the win and tickled at Held’s reaction (Dressel, another young swimmer, also cried a lot). He also helped prime the pump by telling Held before the anthem started that “it’s OK to sing, and it’s OK to cry.”

“It was great to see the young guys get emotional,” Phelps said.

So Held had maxed out at the Olympics, winning a gold medal in his only event. He’s in no hurry to go home, though. Athletes are allowed to stick around and go to other events once their competitions are done, and Held plans to do that.

“I’m staying until the closing ceremony,” Held said. “This is my one guaranteed Olympics and I am going to enjoy it.”

Following that, Held will fly back to Raleigh. He is majoring in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology and has two more years left of swimming eligibility as well.

And Held wasn’t the only North Carolina swimmer to win a gold medal Sunday night, either. By virtue of their performances in the preliminaries, SwimMAC’s Ervin and Jimmy Feigen both will receive a gold medal, too.

“The whole day,” Held said, “feels just unbelievable.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer