RALEIGH — Swimming is an individual sport in which team scores are kept. But the way they approach it at NC State, meets are like a prolonged relay in which each swimmer builds momentum for the next as they enter the pool for their races.
It’s a mindset that served the Wolfpack men well on the final day of the recent NCAA Championships. The team started strong and kept getting better on the way to winning three national titles.
State brought home five championships in all during the three-day meet while earning 16 All-America honors, on the way to a fourth-place finish behind perennial national powers Texas, Cal and Indiana.
“We’re probably the best team in the whole country at feeding off emotion and getting ourselves pumped up, ready to swim and go faster,” said senior Ryan Held, an Olympic gold medalist who helped the Wolfpack win two relay titles.
“If someone has a really good swim, that just ignites the team and then all of a sudden it kind of snowballs. This person has a good swim, the next person has a good swim and it just keeps going.”
In this particular case, the table-setter turned out to be fellow senior Anton Ipsen. Swimming in the opening event of the day, the native of Denmark swam the team equivalent of the leadoff leg by blowing away the field in the grueling 1,650-yard freestyle.
Ipsen, who also represented his country in Rio two summers ago, won the 66-lap marathon by more than five seconds in an effort that had both personal and team implications.
“It was my last collegiate swim ever, and I wanted to set the team up first,” he said. “I knew it could be a special evening and we had a lot of swims that could be contenders.”
State began the final session clinging to a six-point lead on Florida for fourth place, on the strength of national championships by the 200 freestyle relay team and sophomore Coleman Stewart — whose win in the 100 backstroke was the Wolfpack’s first individual title since Cullen Jones in the 50 freestyle in 2006.
Stewart also earned honorable mention All-America in the 200 backstroke by following Ipsen’s big opening swim with a fourth-place result in the “B” final. Held then broke the school and ACC record in the 100 freestyle with a time of 41.08.
Although Held didn’t win the race, finishing a close second to Florida’s Caeleb Dressel, his performance served as a springboard for Andreas Vazaios in the 200 butterfly.
The junior from Greece got off to a cautious start before surging from fifth place at the halfway point to an NCAA championship. His time of 1:38.60 broke both the school and conference records.
“Throughout the championships we knew we were in a good place to be in the top four, and we really deserved this place,” said Vazaios, who was named the ACC’s Male Swimmer of the Year last week. “We worked hard and knew that every point mattered.”
With that in mind, Held and 100 freestyle relay teammates Stewart, Justin Ress and Jacob Molacek took to the water primed to close the meet out with an exclamation point.
They gave a hint of both their potential and determination in the preliminaries, with Mark McGlauthlin swimming one of the legs in Stewart’s place.
“Our coach (Braden Holloway) was like, ‘Just get in, make top eight,’” Held said, referring to the qualifying standard for the final. “He put Justin last and told him if he had the open lane, to just take it easy. Then right before Justin got in, we were well ahead, he was like, ‘I’m going to go for it.’”
Did he ever.
With Ress going all out on the anchor leg, the Wolfpack quartet broke the U.S. Open, American and NCAA records with a time of 2:44.75. Those marks lasted until the final when, with Held getting the team off to a blazing start and Stewart providing the finishing kick, State posted the fastest time in history, 2:44.31.
“After Anton’s and Andres’ swim, it was almost our responsibility to win a national championship,” Held said. “We wanted to win one more.”
As successful as the State’s swimmers were in Minneapolis, their strong showing still wasn’t enough to crack the nation’s top three in the team competition. This marks the third straight year the Wolfpack placed fourth.
But that was hardly a disappointment.
“We cannot control what other universities do,” Ipsen said. “Even though our place was the same, our performance speaks for itself. It was a really magical night for NC State.”
That night was only the latest memorable moment in a remarkable run of success for Wolfpack athletic teams.
Over the past month, the men’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, the women’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 while the wrestling team won an individual national championship while placing fourth nationally, and the baseball team is off to its best start since 1999.
“I feel like each team wants to compete for their spot in the spotlight,” Ipsen said. “But also, it makes you happy to know the other athletes here are also performing. It’s a crazy good culture here now.”
It’s a winning culture Holloway, the ACC’s Coach of the Year, and his swimmers were instrumental in getting started. Their sustained success has made the program a destination for some of the nation’s best swimmers, along with those from six foreign countries.
“When I was a junior in high school, NC State was maybe fifth at the ACCs and 25th at NCAAs,” Held said. “Now we’re here, fourth place in the NCAA three years in a row, five national champions, multiple Olympians and American records. Now kids are saying, ‘I want to go to NC State. I want to be part of that.’”