Caeleb Dressel’s Big Step For Butterfly Is A Giant Leap For The Rest

Caeleb Dressel (top) of the United States of America (USA) on his way to a New World Record in the men's 100m Butterfly Semifinal during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 26 July 2019.
Caeleb Dressel - Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

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World Swimming Championships (Caeleb Dressel, 100m butterfly, 49.50 world record)

Gwangju, Day 6 

Few would have predicted that this week would end in Gwangju with both world butterfly records set by Michael Phelps in Rome 10 years ago to the week at the height of shiny suit madness confined to the GOAT’s Pantheon.

The few included Kristof Milak and Caeleb Dressel, who was not about to let a sizzling 49.50sec spoil the occasion.

Semi-finals are for finding your place not leaping on lane lines. History can wait. Said Dressel:

“I am not going to be sitting on a lane line in the semi-finals: that has never been my style. I was happy with it. I got to wave to my family, that is all I wanted.”

He had not expected to be quite as fast as 0.32sec inside the fastest Phelps ever clocked over two laps ‘fly. He had intended to take down Phelps’ standard and felt the day was his to seize:

“Consciously having that on your mind, wanting to go there. I woke up today and I wanted to do it, I thought I was ready to do it. I slept fine last night, I didn’t really have the nerves, I just wanted to do it. And that is all there is to it at the end of the day: just doing it. I didn’t want any other any thoughts besides going under that 49.82.”

Suit-assisted, the eventual winner of 23 Olympic golds atop 28 honours in all over the last four of his five Games relied on polyurethane for pioneering speed, like the rest – to one degree our another – in Rome.

We will never know what might have been that summer, nor will we ever know if Phelps might have laid down even sharper world standards had he not had so much on his plate, almost every day of every championship stacked with challenge.

Dressel, who turns 23 next month and was just four as Phelps sped to fifth in the Sydney 2000 final of the 200m butterfly at 15 years of age, could not remember “that particular race” in Rome.

He could remember the time 49.82 – the first moment a man raced on butterfly into the sub-50 space breached on freestyle by Jim Montgomery back in 1976. Indeed, he could remember all Phelps’ times.

He said: “Of course, I knew all of Michael’s times, I knew how he swam his races. It’s just funny, funny how everything comes full circle but to just have my stamp on the history of swimming, it’s really special for me.

“To have that one little moment where I claimed I was the best at one point in history of swimming is very special. To see a young kid from a small town it’s just crazy how far sport can go.”

Last 49.50, Dressel is travelling at the speed at which Jonty Skinner cracked Montgomery’s mark on freestyle and a fingertip shy of the 49.36 at which Rowdy Gaines set the world freestyle record for the USA in 1981.

Gaines, who is sitting along the press bench from Swimming World in Gwangju, tweeted:

Hard to use the term rivals for the men who will race the American tomorrow knowing his big step for butterfly in this 50th year beyond the Moon Landings is a giant leap too far for them. They’ll try anyway.

“Fair play to him, an unbelievable swim. He’s an incredible athlete,” said Britain’s James Guy. “I heard he was out in 22.8 which is ridiculously fast. When I race these guys – the best guys in the world – I don’t really care who’s beside me – if it’s Sun Yang or Dressel, I’ll do my race.”

He added:” That even goes for one of my best friends, Chad Le Clos: we have a laugh before and stuff but when it comes down to race day we do our own thing and focus on what we need to do. It was amazing to be in the field tonight with Dressel doing that time – it was just something really astonishing. Looking back now I thought 50.6 was fast but 49.5 is just a different level so fair play to him.”

Asked if it was a privilege to race a man like Dressel, Guy said: You don’t really care. I wouldn’t care if it was Michael Phelps with five legs: you have just got to do your own thing and you know what I am going to be close to them, I am going to be hunting them down the last 50 if I can. But yeah, it was great to be there tonight in the 100 ‘fly.”

For the strongest link to Phelps left in the Gwangju fight, we turn to Laszlo Cseh, who said that it was hard to compare the likes of Dressel and Milak to Phelps:

They are now better than everything that’s been – but I think a little bit different because Michael swam 400IM: the longer distances but Caeleb is usually just sprinting.

On Rome, the suits and all that and a 49.50 today, Cseh said: “The suits helped a lot. When I put it on I felt I am in top shape because it lifted my body, take it on the water and somehow my leg is not starting to drop.

“But it was like when someone set a world record everyone just said ‘ah, it is normal’ because it was almost every race. It was not special. Now it is different.”

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