A little more than 21 seconds and Caeleb Dressel’s individual Olympic journey was over.
And in a perfect manner. Every time he put his arms forward in the men’s 50-meter freestyle final, he went up against a world record mark that pulled him along.
He finished the race in Tokyo on Sunday in 21.07 seconds – an Olympic record. He missed the world record by 0.16 seconds. Nobody else had a chance.
He touched the wall and looked up, satisfied. Dressel won gold in all three individual competitions in which he participated Olympic games. His 50-meter freestyle win was the biggest win in Olympic history at 0.48 seconds – men or women.
Dressel’s 3-on-3 performance means that, alongside Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, he is only the third man to win gold in three individual swimming competitions at an Olympiad.
He added two more gold medals in relay competitions, a total of five in Tokyo, including Sunday’s 4×100 medley relay. Just over 75 minutes after Dressel dominated the 50, he came out and swam the butterfly section of the medley to help Team USA win gold at a world record pace. An emotional dressel hugged teammates Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew and Zach Apple after the race, which they won in 3:26:78.
Brilliance. That’s the best word to sum up Dressel’s Olympic appearance in Tokyo. Every time he heard the words “Make your mark, get ready, go”, his back muscles cramped and he dived into the air – somehow he always ended up in the water a little bit ahead of any other swimmer in the race. In the first 15 meters he took the unmistakable lead in every race, his deep underwater dolphin kick was too strong to be challenged by any other competitor.
– #TokioOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 30, 2021
There’s a reason for this – Dressel watched videos of dolphins to imitate their body movements underwater. He moved his whole body in a wave-like motion, just like a dolphin.
And it was worth it every time.
Dressel was in an interesting starting position for Tokyo: He was the favorite to win every sprint event, even though he had never won an individual Olympic gold medal.
Somehow he took on the role of a rookie and a veteran and made it look easy.
The first individual final – the 100-meter freestyle – was about proving yourself to the world. He “felt the weight of the world on his shoulder,” he said afterwards. He was up against British defending champions Kyle Chalmers, and when Dressel touched the wall he looked up to see that he had beaten Chalmers by 0.06 seconds. An Olympic record.
– #TokioOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 29, 2021
He cupped his mouth in his palm, shocked and relieved that the first big event – the first Olympic gold – was his. And at the pool conference that followed, tears came to him as memories of the past year came over him. It’s been a tough year, he said. It was still like this because he had to go through his Olympic trip in Tokyo on his own.
“At the moment I’m just a little injured. It’s been a really tough year,” he said during an interview by the pool after the race. “It’s really hard. To let the results show – I’m happy.”
The 100-meter butterfly on Friday was almost a reflection of the free-style final. He led for the first 15 meters and then sprinted to the finish, almost the whole distance right next to him by the Hungarian Kristof Milak.
WORLD RECORD FOR CAELEB DRESSEL!
– #TokioOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 31, 2021
And this time a world record swim: 49.45. Two days after setting the Olympic record, he outdid himself.
Dressel might have made it easy when he jumped off the diving board, but he said he had to talk himself down first in the waiting room.
“I told my brain to shut up because it was a bit annoying,” said Dressel. “And I have. Again, that won’t prevent me from implementing my race plan. That doesn’t mean I won’t have good technique throughout the race. It’ll just be a little” more difficult, and that’s the funny one Part.”
And that was just the beginning of the biggest day of racing for Dressel. He finished the race, attended the awards ceremony, and then ran to the warm-up pool to prepare for the 50-meter semifinals. He came out about 30 minutes after winning the gold and cleared the field, finishing first in 21:42.
“My mind got a little easier with every race, which is really strange,” said Dressel afterwards. “I was a little upset in the fly ready room. This sport was a lot more fun when nobody knew my name, to be honest. I was a bit shaky then.”
Then, about half an hour later, he came out and swam at anchor in the very first mixed relay competition at the Olympics. The American finished fifth after an unfortunate glasses incident – Lydia Jacoby of Alaska, who swam the second round of the season, ditched her glasses as soon as she jumped in – and Dressel had more than eight seconds to do in the last Lap of the race.
The first – and only – race that didn’t end perfectly for Dressel.
As Dressel said, he’s a very different swimmer than Michael Phelps, but his Olympic run in Tokyo is the closest thing to Phelps’ Olympic run in Athens in 2004. Phelps was in a similar position to Dressel – he finished fifth in the 200m butterfly final at the Sydney 2000 Olympics – and went to Athens as a favorite, but also someone to prove himself. And he went with four individual gold medals and two team medals, only one more than Dressel in Tokyo.
He came as a rookie and left as a breakthrough star – even a veteran.
And Dressel is in the same position.
Five gold medals in a single Olympiad, compared to Phelps.
Dressel is now a seven-time Olympic champion – three singles and four relays at the last two Olympic Games. He is the fifth swimmer to have won at least five gold medals in an Olympics and joins the list with Phelps, Spitz, Kristin Otto and Matt Biondi.
“I’m fine when people want to compare me to him,” Dressel said in a “Today” interview this week.
“I have some goals that I want to achieve that I can call myself great at, and I don’t have to compare myself to Michael to be considered great.”