Caeleb Dressel Shows Brilliance and Humanity in 200 IM Cameo Against Daiya Seto

Caeleb Dressel (photo: Mike Lewis)
Caeleb Dressel of the Cali Condors -- Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

Caeleb Dressel Shows Brilliance and Humanity in 200 IM Cameo Against Daiya Seto

For the first time this ISL season and for the first time ever on the international level, Caeleb Dressel stepped outside of his normal forte of sprinting: freestyle, butterfly and for short course, the 100 IM. He chose to skip the 50 freestyle, in which he undoubtedly would have won easily, to race the 200 IM. Given the teams competing in ISL Match #6, Dressel and Cali Condors head coach Jeff Julian surely knew that racing the 200 IM meant a showdown with Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Duncan Scott of the London Roar, 2019 world champion Daiya Seto of the Tokyo Frog Kings and 2017 world champion Chase Kalisz of the Aqua Centurions.

However, it’s no secret that Dressel, who won five gold medals at the recent Tokyo Olympics, can swim basically any event he wants and excel, even if he does not attempt those outside his circle of primary events very often. And of course he can be great in a short course 200 IM — that is basically a race of four straight sprint 50s. During his college career, Dressel smashed the American record in the 200-yard IM by more than a second with a 1:38.13, moving ahead of David NolanWill LiconJosh Prenot and Ryan Lochte on the all-time list, and Dressel’s record has held up against challenges from the likes of Andrew Seliskar and Shaine Casas.

He was already the world-record holder in the 100 IM, his lifetime best of 49.28 ranking almost a second ahead of any other man in history. Sure, his backstroke is not the best, but he has the advantage of amazing underwater dolphin kicks. And surely he would have the endurance to hold up for a short course 200.

Dressel did exactly that. He was out quick in fly before falling behind Seto in backstroke and breaststroke — by 1.32 seconds — but he made up almost that entire deficit on the freestyle with a blistering 25.72 leg, much faster than world-record pace and even seven tenths faster than Scott, the 200 free Olympic silver medalist. In the end, Seto had enough to barely hang on, 1:51.12 to 1:51.14. Scott was 1.8 seconds adrift, with Kalisz another three tenths behind.

That swim made Dressel the sixth-fastest performer in history and second-fastest American behind world-record holder Ryan Lochte. All of the men ahead of Dressel on that list — Lochte, Kosuke Hagino, Seto, Andreas Vazaios and Wang Shun — are all primarily IMers.

And remember, Dressel has been solid through his first few weeks of ISL racing, but he is not at the record-breaking, dominant level we saw at the Tokyo Olympics in July or even at last November’s ISL final, when he set three individual world records. He is getting back into racing shape, not primed to set records. And he’s already on par with all but the best ever in what is likely his sixth or seventh-best event in SCM. And he pushed Seto to within a second of his lifetime best, plus almost two seconds faster than he had previously swum this season.

Let’s definitely take a moment here to give a shout-out to Seto, whose rebound season in the ISL so far has been splendid. No one could have blamed him for throwing in the towel on 2021 after what can only be described as a hugely disappointing Olympics, where the heavy gold-medal favorite in the 400 IM and a man positioned for maybe three individual medals ended up with one finals appearance and no medals. Now, Seto has two wins in both the 200 breast and 200 IM and one each in the 200 fly and 400 IM, with those events still to come tomorrow. Props for his resilience.

Getting back to Dressel, the catch here is that his IM effort came at a cost. In his first two matches, he has had no trouble going four all-out efforts in one session and performing well, but in this session, he could not recover from the IM in time for the 400 freestyle relay, just four events later. His split was 47.26, more than two seconds slower than he split in the same race last week.

So he is human after all. He cannot do everything perfectly, not all the time. He would never have attempted the 200 IM at the Olympics, not with the grueling end-of-week schedule he was attempting. But becoming the sixth-fastest man in history in the 200 IM? Even in short course, sprinters just don’t do that. Like, ever. This is the same man who just won Olympic gold in the 50 freestyle with a margin of victory more than twice the previous largest. None of Dressel’s rivals in the sprint events have anything resembling his range over so many events.

Now, Dressel will likely go back to the sprints for Sunday, and he will have fierce rival Kyle Chalmers waiting for him in the 100 free. Chalmers was brilliant Saturday when he led off the London Roar’s 400 free relay in 45.69. The Cali Condors will likely need Dressel at his best in his individual events but particularly in 50-meter skins, where Cali might need an output like the 51 points Dressel earned through jackpots in his last match.

But at least once in a while, it’s fun to watch Dressel step well out of his normal box of events and excel in something totally different. It’s a great reminder of just how supremely talented he is, even beyond the skills shown off in winning those five golds in Tokyo. And hey, just for fun, maybe we get a chance to see Dressel go for a 200 freestyle in SCM before this ISL season is done. No doubt it would be impressive and fun to watch.