Caeleb Dressel Perfectly Positioned to Surge Into the Olympic Year

Caeleb Dressel Breaks WR in 100 IM ISL, Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)
Caeleb Dressel; Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Caeleb Dressel Perfectly Positioned to Surge Into the Olympic Year

Some things will change for Caeleb Dressel in the coming days. After six weeks in the Budapest Bubble, he will return to the United States and his home base in Florida. The weekly meets he has become accustomed to during the International Swim League will be replaced by a more selective schedule. And long-course racing (at some point) will return to the mix.

What won’t change for Dressel, the 24-year-old superstar and current face of USA Swimming, will be the ultimate goal: The Olympic Games in Tokyo. For all the success Dressel had over the weekend at the ISL Grand Final, his defining moments are still to come – and the July dates of his delivery will rapidly approach.

As the ISL completed its second season, Dressel was nothing short of phenomenal. Leading the Cali Condors to the team title, Dressel set world records in the Grand Final in the 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 100 individual medley. Twice, he set the American record in the 100 freestyle, and he also secured a victory in the 50 butterfly. For Dressel, the ISL was a playground of sorts, a place where he could put his vast talent on display, and also enjoy the sport.

“It’s been such a fun time, this whole bubble,” Dressel said on the broadcast. “I can’t thank the ISL enough. This is the most fun I’ve ever had swimming in my life, and to have that for six weeks has been very special. This has been an iconic moment for my career. Everything I have learned, I am very thankful for this opportunity to swim with the best.”

In some instances, short-course success does not equate to excellence in the Olympic-sized pool, where careers and legacies are defined. But Dressel is an athlete who has flourished in the big and small pools throughout his days, and the fact that he performed at a spectacular level in Budapest bodes well for what he might be able to do at the Olympics in 2021.

It would have happened ahead of last summer, had the COVID-19 pandemic not put the brakes on the Tokyo Games for a year. Like Janet Evans, Matt Biondi, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky before him, Dressel was pegged as one of the spotlight athletes for the Olympics. Each of his events would’ve attracted significant attention and his pursuit of a huge medal haul would’ve been a fixture of NBC’s coverage. That scenario will now unfold in 2021, and as Dressel prepares to race amid massive expectations, he appears set to handle the situation in style.

No, the ISL does not possess the pressure-filled atmosphere of an Olympic Games. But the International Swimming League gave Dressel the chance to immerse himself in his sport, an opportunity the self-proclaimed “swim nerd” appreciated. Dressel had the chance to showcase his skills to a global audience and to those who will be his rivals in Tokyo. Based on the way he raced, with four world records ultimately dotting his ledger, Dressel undoubtedly showed the opposition that it was dealing with a superstar of epic proportions.

It didn’t matter if he raced a 50 or a 100, in butterfly, freestyle or breaststroke, Dressel used his time in Budapest to shine. He raced five times in a two-hour window on Sunday, a program that enabled him to demonstrate his recovery ability. When tackling a multi-event Olympic program, that recovery will be critical. Dressel, too, showed his desire to rise to the moment.

With the Condors fending off a charge from Energy Standard in the team race, Dressel used the 100 individual medley to make a statement. Not only did he set a world record of 49.28 in the non-Olympic event, thus wiping .60 off his previous standard, Dressel took advantage of the Jackpot system and scored 30 points in the event to end any hopes Energy Standard had of making a comeback.

“That I.M. was a really profound moment from this meet,” Dressel said. “We knew we had a shot at taking the lead, so that one meant a lot, being able to do that in back-to-back meets. Everything in general, the energy this team brings, really wanting to be a part of it, I think everyone realizes that and you can see it every time we step up to race.”

As a rookie on the Olympic stage in 2016, Dressel played a key role in guiding the United States to the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay. Come Tokyo, he’ll be a veteran looking for much more – and those watching him will expect it. If nothing else, the ISL gave Dressel a little practice in a variety of areas that will benefit him in the long run – jam-packed sessions and the chance to step up, among them.

The Olympic Games sit eight months away, which might seem like a long time. But what Caeleb Dressel did during the ISL bubble, and specifically in the Grand Final, generated hype for the impending return of one of sport’s biggest events. Now, he can count down the days until he gets his chance at glory in Japan. Certainly, those watching him will be.


  1. avatar

    Hype as you say. It’s a long road to June 2021 and the Olympic Trials my friend, a long long road.

    • avatar
      John Lohn - Associate Editor-in-Chief

      Clearly, you haven’t watched what Dressel has done – this weekend, at Worlds, etc.

  2. Leigh Collins

    I can’t wait for the Olympics! This guy has the mindset, determination, and persistence I love to see in an athlete.

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