Assessing Caeleb Dressel’s World Record Chances in the ISL Grand Final

Caeleb Dressel (photo: Mike Lewis)
Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Caeleb Dressel just keeps getting faster. That’s not a folksy, gee-whiz, qualitative observation. Instead, it’s backed by the times: Almost unfailingly in this second International Swimming League season, Dressel has gotten faster every meet. As you’ll see below, in the five events he’s swum in all five of his ISL matches, he’s dropped time match-by-match in three of them, like clockwork.

What’s also certain is that in every one of his events, Dressel was fastest the last time he swam, leading the Cali Condors to their fifth consecutive win. And when Dressel hits best times, records fall, because he’s Caeleb Dressel.

His performance in ISL Semifinal 2 led to three American records and one world record, the stirring performance in the 100 individual medley in which he became the first man to break the 50-second barrier.

So what can he do in the Grand Final this year? In last year’s event in Las Vegas, Dressel set three American records and a world record. Can he top that in the Budapest bubble?

Event by event, here’s what Dressel is looking at in terms of chasing history. (Unless otherwise noted, the progression for Dressel’s times this season is Match 1, Match 4, Match 8, Match 10, Semifinal 2)

100 butterfly

  • World record: 48.08, Chad le Clos, 2016
  • Dressel this season: 49.62, 49.35, 49.33, 49.02, 48.92

This will be Dressel’s first swim of the match, and it may be the toughest record to take down. The field will be going for it, no doubt: Chad le Clos will be in the water for Energy Standard, as will LA Current’s Tom Shields. In all, the top five times in ISL (Marius Kusch of London, Marcin Cieslak of Cali) will be represented.

Dressel has been the fastest of the bunch at 48.92, just .02 ahead of Shields and the ISL record (it had been 49.10 by Dressel last year). The American record of 48.63 that Shields has owned since the 2015 Duel in the Pool is in play. The American records in the 50 and 200 both fell in ISL semifinal 2, and Shields is back to swimming personal bests. With fewer races to focus on, Shields may be able to empty the tank more. For either of them to drop the nine-tenths to get to le Clos’s record, though, is a huge ask.

Verdict: Doubtful.

50 freestyle

  • World record: 20.24, Caeleb Dressel, 2019 ISL Final in Las Vegas
  • Dressel this season: 20.85, 20.69, 20.65, 20.52, 20.28

Dressel has been quicker this year than last, so it would stand to reason that this one could be in doubt. It could be a messy final, with Dressel, Energy Standard’s Florent Manaudou (best 2020 time: 20.55) and LA’s Kristian Gkolomeev (20.80) in the race. But Dressel excels in such fields because of his ability to get out front and stay out of other swimmer’s wash. To execute a world record in any 50-meter event requires flawless execution, so nothing is guaranteed. But this record is in serious jeopardy, with Dressel already having buzzed within .04 of it.

And, we’ll ask the question, can Dressel be the first man under 20 seconds? It’s an actual conversation.

Verdict: Probable (on the record; we’ll leave it as questionable on cracking 20.)

50 breaststroke

  • World record: 25.25, Cameron van der Burgh, 2009
  • Dressel this season: 26.31 in Match 4, 26.15 in Match 8 (also went 26.29-26.52-26.20 in Match 4 skins and 26.08-26.52 in Match 8 skins)

Caeleb Dressel; Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

This is the only event that isn’t a given for Dressel to take part in. He didn’t swim it in Match 1, Match 10 or the semi. It seems he’ll only swim it if it’s likely to be the skins choice. The race comes on Day 1, less than 20 minutes after the 50 free that he certainly won’t miss, and it would mean three big races in the first 65 minutes of racing.

It’s also an event where Dressel is a mere mortal, with the 10th-fastest time in ISL this season at 26.08 and sixth-fastest among the finalists. But he’s Cali’s best swimmer by some distance, next being Nic Fink, who is rounding into form but has still only been 26.61, 16th-best this season.

The record chase will be on. Van der Burgh’s 100 breast record went down in the semifinals, and Adam Peaty would love to add the 50. The record survived Emre Sakci’s best shot by .04 seconds. Peaty has been 25.48, and Ilya Shymanovich of Energy Standard is in with a shout at 25.55. But Dressel is unlikely to be part of it, though you wouldn’t bet against him figuring out a way to at least make the final if breaststroke is the skins choice.

Verdict: Very unlikely.

100 free

  • World record: 44.94, Amaury Leveaux, 2008
  • Dressel this season: 45.87, 46.42, 46.12, 45.56, 45.20

This may be the most sought after, among only two men’s world record hanging on from the super-suit era. Dressel owns the ISL record and was 45.22 in the finals last year. The next quickest time this season is 45.86 from Maxime Rooney, with Manaudou fourth in 45.92. (Second-fastest Zach Apple, who beat Dressel head-to-head with the DC Trident, isn’t in the final.) Manaudou would love to replace his fellow Frenchman in the spot, but the 30-year-old hasn’t shown that turn of speed this season.

It’s the first event of Day 2, so Dressel won’t have to worry about prepping. Depending on the skins (more on that momentarily), Dressel could lead off the mixed freestyle relay and get a second shot at this, though that swim is a quick turnaround from the 50 fly.

Verdict: Possible.

50 butterfly

  • World record: 21.75, Nicholas Santos, 2018
  • Dressel this season: 22.46, 22.64, 22.41, 22.06, 22.04

Believe it or not, the Cali Condors haven’t won a men’s medley relay this season. LA Current has gone 5-for-5. Energy Standard won three in the regular season. London won twice, then upended Energy in the first semifinal.

What that means is we haven’t seen Dressel in butterfly skins, because no one in their right mind is inviting Dressel to swim more. (For the neutrals, a 50 fly pitting le Clos, Shields and Dressel is the most tantalizing prospect from the Grand Final, so it probably won’t happen.)

If the Roar win the men’s medley relay, they’re going to play the Peaty card in breaststroke. The Current will go with backstroke because of Ryan Murphy. Energy Standard, with le Clos and Manaudou, have a chance to play to their chasers’ weaknesses.

All that is to say that Dressel probably gets one shot at this record. As Nicholas Santos showed in the second semifinal, it takes everything going right to get a record, forced to settle for 21.80. The record also survived a buzz by Szebasztian Szabo in Aqua Centurions’ last meet. Dressel has only (“only”) the third-fastest time this year. He was 22.06 in setting the ISL record last year. To reclaim it, a world record is likely needed. Dressel’s AR is certainly in play, but three tenths for a world mark is a lot to do over 50 meters.

Verdict: Possible but unlikely.

100 individual medley

  • World record: 49.88, Caeleb Dressel, Nov. 16 (ISL Semifinal 2)
  • Dressel this season: 51.36, 51.27, 51.11, 50.48, 49.88

This one feels pretty simple. Caeleb Dressel has gotten faster each meet. He set a world record last meet. Therefore, if he goes faster again, he’ll set another record. Boom done. Right?

Maybe not. The Condors will be chasing a team title, and Dressel will be all in on that. So discretion might be the better part of valor.

In the Condor’s semifinal, Dressel swam the 100 free at 18:06 local time. The IM was 29 minutes later, then 23 minutes to the 50 fly, then 14 minutes to the mixed free relay. Had he participated in skins, he would have about 30 minutes to prep.

If the Current pick backstroke skins, you could see Dressel for the first time, if a title hangs in the balance, the only stroke where his participation is even a question. So if Dressel is a body-length ahead at the 75-meter wall in the IM, knowing he already has the win and jackpot points plus the world record in hand from last meet, does he maybe save a little gas in the tank? It’s not that he can’t recapture that form again, just that there might not be a need to.

Verdict: Possible.