Ryan Held, USA turns red, white and blue into gold

David Gray - Reuters—0
2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Victory Ceremony - Men's 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay Victory Ceremony - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro

Ryan Held wasn’t supposed to be in Rio. The NC State swimmer needed several upsets of top American swimmers just to make Team USA for the 2016 Olympics.But then last Sunday he managed to more than prove his worth. In the first international swim of his career, Held came away with a gold medal in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay race and in the process, he captured America’s heart.Swimming on a team with Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian, Held was easily overlooked as he took the starting block. But by the end of the night, the country was falling in love with the Olympic rookie who was openly weeping on Phelps shoulder during a victorious national anthem.”This time last year, I was honestly just thinking about U.S. Nationals and hoping to make a final, never the Olympics,” Held said following the race. “[The tears] were a combination of the progression of the last four years and thinking about everyone in the swimming community from Springfield [Ill.] to Raleigh and just remembering how much support and love they showed me.”Phelps, who was accepting his 19th Olympics gold medal at the time, made sure to give Held some words of advice before they left the stage.”Michael put his arm around me and said, ‘Hey man, don’t cry. This is your time. Take it all in. Be happy,'” Held said.That’s when the Internet blew up. Not only were Held’s social media accounts blowing up — he had less than 800 Twitter followers before last Sunday — videos and images of his tears went viral.Coming down from that high wasn’t easy for Held, who stayed up until 2 a.m. in Rio and couldn’t get to sleep. The next day, he was up at 6 a.m. to go on the “Today Show” before facing a full slate of interviews to discuss his new stardom.”It was quite the struggle,” Held said. “From my neck down, my body was exhausted. But from my neck up, my mind was just racing with a thousand thoughts a minute. I was just running on fumes.”While it’s a completely new experience for Held, he’s leaned on Phelps for more than just a shoulder to cry on during the experience.”He’s a great leader and a great athlete,” Held said of Phelps. “He kind of gives like a sense of confidence to other swimmers. So when I’m around him I stand a little taller and feel a little stronger.”Phelps going out on topThere’s really nothing to be said about Phelps that hasn’t already been said. If he was his own country, Phelps would already be in the top 40 in summer gold medals. Outpacing Argentina, Austria, Mexico and North Korea alone, he is the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.Despite his advanced age of 31 — yes, that’s old for swimmers — Phelps routed younger athletes in every facet. Whether it was freestyle or butterfly, the legendary swimmer didn’t show any signs of slowing down in his fifth Olympics.His two biggest wins came in the 4x100m relay with Held and the 200m butterfly. After hearing trash talk from South African swimmer Chad Le Clos for four years, Phelps annihilated Le Clos on the biggest stage possible. That’s how the greatest of all time wraps up a legendary career.Ledecky laps the fieldHeld may represent the future of American swimming on the men’s side, but there is a younger female already torching the competition in Rio. At just 19 years old, Katie Ledecky won every event she entered in style, even torching her own world record with a 3:56.46 in the 400-meter freestyle.For those who didn’t watch — what were you doing with your life? — Ledecky finished at least two full body lengths ahead of her competition. To give some perspective, the teenager touched the wall, looked back at her time and celebrated before silver medalist Jazmin Carlin touched the wall nearly five seconds later.Before blistering her opponents in the 800-meter freestyle on Friday night, Ledecky singlehandedly led Team USA to a gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay. Down by a full body length after three swimmers, Ledecky won by 1.84 seconds after sweeping the leg on Australia.”I was prepared for any circumstance, whether we were ahead or behind,” Ledecky said.In individual events, Ledecky was rarely behind, especially on long-distance swims. After showing shades of Phelps-like dominance on the Olympics stage at 19 (the same age as Phelps when he won six gold medals in Athens), expectations will be even higher in Tokyo in 2020 for the budding superstar.’Final Five’ wreck the worldIf there was any competition in less doubt during the first week than a Ledecky long-distance event, it was the U.S. women’s gymnastics competitions. Every time Simone Biles and Co. hit the floor, bars, vault or beam every other team was simply hoping for silver.Nicknamed the “Final Five” for being coach Martha Karolyi’s last Olympics squad (Tokyo will also feature four-person gymnastics teams), all five women were nearly perfect in her final team competition. With a final score of 184.897, USA outpaced second-place Russia by more than eight points.Second through eighth were decided by 4.51 points. It was nothing short of total domination.The 4-foot-8 dynamo Simone Biles piled on the party with an all-around gold medal as Aly Raisman won silver. Just how ridiculously good is Biles? Even Raisman, a veteran gymnast for Team USA who won team gold in 2012, knew she wasn’t touching Biles heading into the all-around event.After explaining anyone could take the top spot on any given day, Raisman quickly changed her answer.”Not counting Simone,” Raisman said. “Simone is always the best. … I hope she wins. Because she wins every single competition.”It’s almost not fair for the rest of the world when Gabby Douglas, the 2012 all-around gold medalist, couldn’t make the field because of Biles and Raisman taking her spot. In the qualifying event, Douglas finished third in the world, but couldn’t advance because of the two-per-country rule.Don’t expect this dominance to slow down anytime soon. The world barely knew about Biles back in 2012 when the U.S. won gold. Now that the team has back-to-back golds and two straight world championships in 2014 and 2015, this team will be expected as a powerhouse again in 2020.