Olympic gold-medal swimmer Ryan Held may have narrowly missed the chance to compete in an individual event at last year's Olympics, but the 22-year-old American is now zeroed in on seizing opportunities to make his mark on his own rather than as a relay star.
The 2017 Summer Universiade that formally opened in Taipei on Saturday presents one such opportunity for Held, who won the gold medal in the men's 4x100 freestyle relay along with teammates Michael Phelps, Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Calling the Taipei Universiade the next big thing for him after the Rio Olympics, Held told CNA in an interview in Taipei on Saturday that he is hoping to use the games to increase his individual racing experience.
"In the Olympics I only made the relay. I only swam once in the relay. After that, I was happy. I was like, 'I won a gold medal.' But I was feeling a little empty because I didn't get to swim individually," he said.
"So I told myself, 'OK, next year, I want to make World University Games (Universiade).' I want to swim individually, so I can have the pressure on me and just myself, and not anyone else on the relay team."
"I need to get used to that attitude and atmosphere of just me behind the blocks, representing my country," said the swimmer from Springfield, Illinois.
Though competing in individual events remains the top goal, Held opened his Universiade campaign in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay, an event he and his teammates won Sunday evening in a time of 3:14.01 to top the Italian and Russian teams, which grabbed silver and bronze, respectively.
He will also compete in the men's 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and men's 4x100-meter medley relay later in the week.
When asked about how he was feeling, Held compared himself to a horse that is ready to run in a big race.
"I feel great. I feel ready to race. It's like horse racing. The horse is in the cage and really antsy, ready to get out I'm just really antsy to get out and race."
He said his goal in Taipei is to set new personal bests and to make it to the finals in all of his events.
"And if it's meant to be, then three golds would be ideal," said Held, who is aiming for a time in the low 22 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle and 48.2 seconds in the 100-meter race.
Between his events, Held said, he will spend some time in the pool but he won't exhaust himself.
He is also confident that U.S. swim team will do well at the Universiade.
"Our team just has a lot of new guys, and I think that's great because they are going to be kind of young and hungry," Held said.
The United States dominated the swimming event at the 2015 Gwangju Universiade with 34 medals, including 15 gold medals.
The Universiade is the largest sporting event ever held in Taiwan. When asked about his impression so far, Held praised the Taiwanese staff and volunteers at the Universiade as "incredibly enthusiastic" and the competition pool as "state-of-the-art."
The swimmer, who is visiting Taiwan for the first time, said he hopes to see the Taipei 101 skyscraper before he leaves the country on Aug. 27.
Held captured the media spotlight and became a social media darling last year, after he broke down in tears and found comfort in the arms of the legendary Olympian Michael Phelps during the gold medal awards ceremony at the Olympics.
During the interview, Held recalled an episode in the ready room in which Phelps tried to calm Held's nerves before the competition.
"Michael just kind of put his hands around me and just said, 'hey man, this is just swimming. The sun's still going to shine tomorrow. Your dog is still going to lick you when you go home. Life is still going to be good. Just go up there and enjoy the crowd. Take in the lights. Take in the sound. And just swim,'" he said.
"I thought that really helped me because I was extremely nervous," he added.
Looking to the future, Held said he plans to compete for an individual spot in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Held narrowly missed qualifying for an individual spot in the Rio Olympics, after finishing a close third in the Olympic trials in the 100-meter freestyle.
He described the competition in swimming in the United States as "cutthroat" because "you can work four years of your whole entire life and miss [out] by a 0.01 [second]," he said.
But the desire to improve and achieve the best result is what motivates him and keeps him going.
"For me personally, it's just wanting to be the best and wanting to keep my name on the record board," he said.
Source: Overseas Community Affairs Council