Caeleb Dressel: On His Way to Elite, Historic Company at Tokyo Olympics — But Work Remains

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) with his gold medal during the medals ceremony for the men's 100m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Caeleb Dressel won the first individual gold medal of his career in the men's 100 free -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Caeleb Dressel: The Work Remaining in His Potentially Historic Olympics

Over the course of Olympic history, only two male swimmers have ever accomplished what Caeleb Dressel is trying to do in Tokyo — win three individual gold medals at a single Olympics. At the 1972 Games, Mark Spitz won the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly, and in 2004 and 2008, Michael Phelps captured gold in the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 IM and 400 IM, and he added a fifth gold in the 200 free in 2008. None of the other greats in swimming history have done that.

Of course, the swimming program was much smaller in 1924, when Johnny Weissmuller won gold in the 100 free and 400 free, but even though he surely would also have won the 200 free at those Games, the event was not on the program. Don Schollander was in the same position in 1964, winning the 100 and 400 free but having no chance over 200 meters – only for that event to be added to the Olympic schedule at the next Games.

Aside from Phelps and Spitz, the man who almost joined them in this exclusive club was Matt Biondi, the American sprint star who won the 50 and 100 free at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul but came up just one hundredth short in the 100 fly, when Anthony Nesty nipped him at the finish.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 100m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel celebrates after winning Olympic gold in the men’s 100 free — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Now, there’s Dressel, aiming to win the same three events that Biondi contested, the same three events in which he swept the world titles in 2017 and 2019. The hardest of that bunch was always going to be the 100 free, with defending Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers sure to be pumping hard down the stretch (as he was) and a collection of young sprinters coming hard for his crown. But Dressel got the job done, his 47.02 enough to secure his first individual Olympic gold by 0.06 over the Australian.

But the 100 butterfly? He has been dominant over the rest of the world in that event for several years. He tied the Olympic record of 50.39 in prelims while basically floating to the finish. His 2019 world title win was by more than a second. The 200 fly gold medalist Kristof Milak will likely present a challenge but not to the level of what Chalmers brougth in the 100 free.

In the 50 free, Dressel holds the top time in the world by four tenths, an eternity in the splash-and-dash where the largest margin of victory in an Olympic final is 0.22.

Dressel is also expected to compete as part of the U.S. 400 medley relays, both the mixed-gender version Saturday morning and the men’s relay Sunday. He will surely swim fly on the men’s relay, although he could handle fly or free on the mixed relay. That’s a potential four additional medal opportunities but also a fairly grueling schedule. Here’s what it should look like, with the usual reminder that Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of U.S. EDT.

Friday, July 30
10:35 a.m.: 100 Butterfly Semifinal 2
7:20 p.m.: 50 Freestyle Heat 10

Saturday, July 31
10:30 a.m.: 100 Butterfly Final
11:11 a.m. or 11:16 a.m.: 50 Freestyle Semifinal 1 or 2
11:43 a.m.: 400 Mixed Medley Relay Final

Sunday, August 1
10:30 a.m. 50 Freestyle Final
11:36 a.m. 400 Medley Relay Final

While no one will confuse Dressel’s program with the likes of what Katie Ledecky has tackled in Tokyo – already 5,400 meters of racing with another 800 to go – that is a lot of times hearing “Take your mark” in quick succession. But Dressel has done this before. Twice, actually.

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) hugs Kyle Chalmers (AUS) during the medals ceremony for the men's 100m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Chalmers and Caeleb Dressel embrace after Dressel edged Chalmers to win Olympic gold in the men’s 100 free — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

At the 2017 World Championships, he became the first man to win three world titles in one day, placing first in the 50 free, 100 fly and mixed 400 free relay on day seven. He broke the American record in the 50 free, almost broke the world record in the 100 fly and was barely behind his individual 100 free time when leading off the mixed relay in race No. 3.

Two years later, he matched that feat: American record in the 50 free, just off his own world record (from the previous day’s semifinal) in the 100 fly and really solid on the mixed relay leadoff. And again, three golds. So a final, a semifinal and then a relay final Saturday morning? No big deal.

Dressel will likely walk away from Tokyo with six medals, and if the Americans can overcome very competitive fields in the medley relays (more on that later), they could all be gold. He captivated the nation with his emotional victory in the 100 free, and a perfect six-for-six performance would put Dressel on the path to swimming immortality, a feat that only Spitz (seven golds in 1972) and Phelps (eight golds in 2008, six golds and two bronzes in 2004) have ever beaten.

Dressel does not enjoy the comparisons to Phelps, and he is absolutely correct – they are very different swimmers. But Dressel is on the verge of achieving the transcendent stardom that Phelps and few others in the sport have ever reached. And having such a figure emerge would be a massive boon for swimming, particularly in the United States. If Dressel can achieve perfection or come close, he could be the magnet for drawing fans into the sport and keeping them, even outside of the Olympics, just like Phelps.

Years ago, Phelps had a goal to change the sport of swimming, and Dressel is continuing in those tracks.

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