Caeleb Dressel Following in Footsteps of Michelangelo

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

In 1506, Pope Julius II commissioned 31-year-old Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Completed six years later, that fresco is now considered one of the great works of art ever created.

But at first, Michelangelo was wary of taking on such a massive assignment and not just because he had already been working on building an elaborate tomb for the Pope. Michelangelo was not a painter—he was primarily a sculptor, already considered the world’s finest. One of his rivals convinced the Pope that Michelangelo should paint the chapel—and work in a medium in which he was unfamiliar and inexperienced—in hopes of seeing Michelangelo fail.

Of course, history shows that Michelangelo did not fail, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling remains one of the signature works of art in the Vatican. Michelangelo is now highly revered for both his sculptures and his frescos.

Five hundred years later, Caeleb Dressel is a 21-year-old sprinter that is already the world’s finest. Already, he has begun work on his own version of the Sistine Chapel—mastering events that are not his signature bread-and-butter, the sprint freestyle and butterfly races.

But unlike Michelangelo, Dressel did not need much convincing.

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It was a warm South Texas afternoon in mid-February, along the country corridor of Texas State Route 6. In the air was a sense of inevitability and incredulity: The World Champion in the 50 free was about to become the fastest man ever in the 200-yard IM. Had that ever happened before?

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Photo Courtesy: Thomas Campbell/Texas A&M Athletics

Hours later, at the SEC championships in College Station, Dressel would crush David Nolan’s existing record by more than a second. It was an unrivaled display of power and versatility, a spectacle that sent fans flocking to YouTube for video evidence. Two days later, Dressel would follow up with another record in an off-event, the 100 breast.

Dressel eagerly embraced the opportunity to expand his event lineup in short course, aspiring ever since he arrived at the University of Florida in 2014 to be not just a sprinter. The formula for a Dressel record in any event 200 yards or shorter is no secret: Power through his start, turns and underwater dolphin kicks, and no one can keep up.

In 2017, he mastered the art of sustaining that power over a 50-meter course in sprint free and fly on his way to seven World Championship gold medals. Okay—but can he do that in a long course 200 free, 200 IM or 100 breast?

According to one prominent U.S. coach, not in the breaststroke—no way. That coach attributed Dressel’s 50.03 in the 100-yard breast at the SEC championships primarily to the dolphin kick now allowed on each pullout.

“One dolphin kick, and Caeleb can go a 50-point,” the coach said. “But put Caeleb in a 100-meter breaststroke, and you’re not going to get a sub-1:00 swim. He’s not a breaststroker, but he’s got a dolphin kick that’s the best in the world, and he gets to do four of them. Four dolphin kicks for Caeleb, that’s probably a second, second and a half.”

Okay, that’s a compelling argument—but would it really surprise anyone if Dressel did manage a 59 in that event? He’s already swum as quick as 27.89 in the 50 breast this year, at the Mel Zajac International earlier this month in Vancouver. And since the 100 breast falls on an otherwise free day on the event schedule at U.S. Nationals next month, maybe he gives it a shot.

The 200 free, on the other hand, is definitely on his radar. Dressel finished sixth in the 200 free at last year’s Nationals, earning him a spot on the 4×200 free relay for the World Championships, but U.S. coaches left him off the squad altogether in an attempt to combat his brutal event load.

That American squad ended up with a disappointing bronze medal, and everyone was left to wonder if a man whose lifetime best was 1:47.51 could have impacted that relay.

Few other 50 free champions have ever been 200 free options for their countries’ relays. Of the six men who have won Olympic gold in the event, only 1988 champion Matt Biondi ever dabbled in the 200—not Alexander Popov, Gary Hall Jr., Anthony Ervin, Cesar Cielo or Florent Manaudou.

Dressel has already swum as quick as 1:48.73 in the 200 free this season, at the Mel Zajac meet, and it’s not crazy to think he could put up a 1:45 relay split come championship season.

“I would love to be a part of any relay for Team USA—it’s truly an honor—but I also want the best four guys on the block. I feel like I have to earn that spot,” Dressel said. “It is a relay that I’d like to be a part of, so we’ll see if it fits the schedule and go from there.

The long course 200 IM, on the other hand, would be a totally new venture for Dressel. In yards, it’s possible to power through turns and sprint all eight lengths, but long course requires more endurance and skill in each stroke. Dressel has the free and fly covered, and his breaststroke is fine, but backstroke could be a struggle.

“I don’t like being on my back,” Dressel said in February. “It makes me panic.”

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Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Long-term, it probably will turn out that Dressel is at his best in those sprint events, the 50 and 100 free and 100 fly. At last year’s World Championships, he came tantalizingly close to world records in all three of those events—all suit-aided records that date back to 2009. Most expect that at some point in 2018, 2019 or 2020, Dressel will surpass all of those benchmarks.

As for other events, it’s clear that his long course 200 free abilities could make him at least a useful relay depth piece, but he’s totally unproven in anything else. Yes, he mastered the 200 IM and 100 breast in yards, but making the jump to long course is akin to going from painting within the lines to painting from a blank canvas.

The saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is used too often to preach patience, but here, perhaps, it applies. After all, it took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

At this point, Dressel simply doesn’t know what events will fit into the schedule at the end of this season or any season, but he wants to be ready to put up his best swim in whatever events he ends up swimming.

“I know what my basics are—100 fly, 50 free, 100 free. I understand that, but I don’t want to limit myself to just those. That’s why I’ve kind of messed around with other events in season,” he said. “I like to train a little bit above that because then you’ll be ready for those other events when the time comes.”

Dressel’s sculpting career—i.e., his sprinting—has already made him one of the best in the world, but his painting career in these new events is in its infancy. Let’s wait and see if he can paint the Sistine Chapel.

1 Comment

1 comment

  1. avatar
    dunc1952

    Well done, Dave.

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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