STANFORD, Calif. – Ryan Held can breathe a sigh of relief now.
He didn’t take a breath in cruising to victory Sunday in the 50-meter freestyle at the Phillips 66 National Championships to go along with his 100 free win from Wednesday.
“This is a huge confidence boost,” said Held, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 4x100-meter freestyle who was eighth in the 100 and 10th in the 50 at the 2018 nationals. “Last year I was kind of down in the dumps and this year means that the trajectory that I was on is not my future. I still have speed to gain and time to drop.”
He dropped plenty of time this week at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Held won the Phillips 66 Performance of the Meet award with a performance so hot it melted the glue holding the crystal together on the trophy. (Actually, the temperature was to blame).
He lowered the U.S. Open record (performances in an American pool) twice in the 100 free on the opening day of the meet.
Held clocked 47.43 seconds in the morning prelims to break Jason Lezak’s mark of 47.58 from 2008. His previous best was 48.26.
The 24-year-old then went 47.39 in the final, a time that would have won the bronze at the recent world championships. That made him No. 3 in U.S. history behind Caeleb Dressel (46.96 this year) and Dave Walters, who swam 47.33 in 2009. Held moved ahead of Michael Phelps (47.51) and Nathan Adrian (47.52).
He capped the meet by lowering his personal best twice in the 50 free – from 22.14 to 21.88 in the prelims, and then to 21.87 in the final. Robert Howard and Bowe Becker tied for second at 22.00.
Held led wire to wire.
“I like to pride myself on my starts,” he said. “I think I can get out to 15 just as fast as anybody and just from there, just have clean water and everyone else has got to go through more turbulent water to catch up to you. It just gives me that slight advantage right from the get-go.”
He said the way he feels after holding his breath the entirety of the “splash and dash” race "depends on how you finish.
“If you finish first, you could get up and get on the blocks and do that 50 again because you’re so jacked up, but if it’s a bad 50, then you really start to feel it.”
Held broke out of the pack to finish third in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming and make the U.S. Olympic team. He was so overcome on the podium after winning the 4x100-meter free that Phelps consoled him.
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Then in 2017, Held placed sixth at nationals. After winning the gold medal in the 100 free at the World University Games in 2017, Held had some sickness last summer and was mentally burned out from swimming.
“I think the strongest swimmers are the ones who are mentally confident in themselves and their abilities,” he said. “I never gave up on myself, it was just two years of like, ‘OK, next year. I’ve got to work harder and harder.’ This was the year that finally everything came together.”
On Valentine’s Day, he moved from NC State to Indiana to train with Coley Stickels, who then took the coaching job at Alabama. Three months later, Held moved again. While the move was hard, his training did not suffer.
“I think the coaching change, and environment change definitely helped,” Held said. “I knew something was special in the weeks leading up to this meet.”
He could feel it even more keenly while watching the recent world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
“For me, it was like being on Dec. 22 or 23 and I knew Christmas Eve and Christmas was right around the corner,” Held said. “I was just sitting at home and I knew I had a 47 in me and I knew I had a best meet coming up and it was like, ‘Ahhh. Come on! I want to be there and prove myself, but I’ve just got to live the time to actually get there.’”
Held said that if he’d had a meet like this last year, he would have made the U.S. team.
Although Caeleb Dressel, who won eight medals at worlds, entered nationals in several events, he did not compete.
“I’m looking forward to racing him,” Held said. “I don’t know about beating him, but I look forward to racing him.
“I think Caeleb has really pushed the whole entire United States men’s sprinting in a forward direction. At NC State, we always said a single tide raises all ships. I think Caeleb is pushing the whole United States men’s sprinting scene to be at their best.”