CAELEB DRESS TOUCHED the wall in his final final – the 50-meter freestyle – at the US Olympic swimming tests and looked at the big screen, the number 1 flashing next to his name. He smiled and immediately swam over to runner-up, Michael Andrew, and hugged him.
Veteran Nathan Adrian, who finished third and missed the cut to finish fourth Olympic games, swam over to Dressel and hugged him.
These two hugs highlighted an important moment in USA Swimming, a glimpse into its past, present and future. Dressel, 24, welcomed a first-time Olympian to the team and said goodbye to a long-time member of Team USA.
Dressel is a veteran now – a captain, a leader. He will contest seven events in Tokyo – three individual sprints and four seasons – in his second games.
When he hugged Adrian afterwards, he told him he was “not ready to go to the Olympics without you”. Adrian’s shoes, said Dressel, were too big to fill them out.
“I’m not very interested in the limelight,” Dressel told NBC Sports ahead of the 2021 Olympics.
He may not love it or be prepared for it, but it still belongs to him. With Adrian and Ryan Lochte, two pillars who fail to make the team, the leader’s role is now his.
“I want to take everything I learned from Michael with me [Phelps], Lochte and Nathan and bring it to this team. I want to lead by example, “said Dressel at the press conference ahead of the Olympic Games in July.
Dressel has not yet won an individual medal at the Olympic Games; At the 2016 Games in Rio, he won the two team relay golds. At these Olympics he will have seven chances of gold. Should he make it, it would still be less than Phelps’ 2008 record in Beijing. However, if he can win medals in all of his disciplines, he would only be the fourth swimmer to take home that many. Phelps, Mark Spitz, and Matt Biondi are the others.
Dressel’s journey at these games began on Sunday as part of the 4×100 relay that won gold. His quest to become “The Next Michael Phelps” is officially underway.
WHILE DRESSEL HAS He has never won an individual Olympic medal and has been preparing for this breakout moment for quite some time.
Four years ago, he broke the US Open and American 100-meter freestyle and butterfly records at the NCAA Division I Championships. He then won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Water Championships in Budapest, Hungary, making it only the second swimmer after Phelps, who won seven gold medals at a world championship. Phelps, of course, was the other. Dressel was called the male swimmer of the meeting.
At that moment in 2017, the comparisons with Phelps began. Dressel won three gold medals in one night – in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 4×100-meter mixed freestyle relay – and was the first person to achieve this feat at World Championships or the Olympic Games . Even Phelps didn’t do that.
“The comparisons are probably inevitable,” said Dressel at the time. “But I’m not the same person as Michael.”
At the 2019 World Water Championships, he outdid himself and won eight medals – seven gold and one silver. It was most of what a swimmer has won in a single championship. In the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly, he broke Phelps’ 10-year world record with 49:50, 0.32 seconds ahead of Phelps.
“It wasn’t easy in ’17, it wasn’t easy this year,” said Dressel at the time. “I don’t want it to be easy, really not.”
Like most athletes, Dressel had to adapt in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. First he had to stop training, and when he could resume he trained alone – then he found a pool to train in. He married high school lover and former swimmer Meghan Haila. To keep fit, the couple hiked the Appalachian Trail. They also bought a house in Florida and Dressel spent his time building furniture for it.
When Dressel returned to training, he picked up exactly where he left off. He was still swimming record times. He was calm and collected, learned a lot about himself, his family and the important things in life, he said in his podcast “The Ben and Caeleb Show”.
DRESS IS NOT new on the big stage. He was the youngest male swimmer – aged 15 – in the 2012 US Olympics and competed against Phelps and Lochte in their prime. He didn’t make it to the final, but gained valuable experience. In 2016 he finished second behind Adrian in the 100 meter freestyle and thus secured his place at his first Olympic Games.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he helped Team USA win two gold medals in relay competitions. In the 4×100 meter freestyle relay, Dressel swam the first stage in 48.10, the second fastest time of all in the first stage of the race. He finished sixth in the 100-meter freestyle, which has now become his marquee.
This time he was one of the big stars of the trials. After the 100-meter freestyle, he went to a fan – a boy who looked like Dressel and was dressed – and took pictures with him.
“That was anything but an easy year. This meeting is brutal,” he said at the time. “It’s not really much fun not racing, but I’m really happy and proud of myself. It’s no shame to say that.”
Now he’s arriving in Tokyo as the captain. He wants to take Phelps’ composure, Adrian’s composure and Lochte’s confidence into this new role. He has relied on all of them throughout his career, especially during the pandemic, he said at the trials.
If his approach to the Olympic trials is any clue, Dressel is ready – for that moment in the spotlight.
He is ready to become the next big name in swimming.