Emerging Stars Dressel and Comerford Propel Americans to Golden Night

caeleb dressel
Photo Courtesy: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

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By David Rieder.

Katie Ledecky was her usual dominant self. Nathan Adrian and Simone Manuel epitomized clutch on the anchor legs of their respective 400 free relays. The Americans won three gold medals on the first night of the FINA World Championships, already almost halfway to matching the eight they won at the last Worlds in 2015.

Ledecky, specifically, will capture plenty of attention as she added two more gold medals to her résumé. Her career total now stands at 11, tied with Missy Franklin for most all-time. Her time of 3:58.34 was almost two seconds off her own world record—“It was my second best time ever,” she pointed out—and she was elated to share the podium with silver medalist and teammate Leah Smith.

That gold medal was nothing of a surprise, an exercise in dominance that Ledecky has been executing for five years. The relay gold medals? Less so, and they would not have been if not for the efforts of two swimmers in their first World Championships finals: Caeleb Dressel and Mallory Comerford.

dressel-rio-postrace-look-scoreboard-100fr-prelims

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Dressel had led off the U.S. men’s 400 free relay that won Olympic gold in Rio, but he would have to deal with two races on night one of his debut Worlds in Budapest: the 50 fly semi-finals followed by the 400 free relay final.

When the double was complete, he had set his first two long course American records, won his first World title and qualified for his first individual World Championship final as the top seed.

His time of 22.76 put him one hundredth ahead of Andrii Govorov in the 50 fly semi-finals and 0.15 under the previous national mark set by Bryan Lundquist eight years ago. But that 50 was his warm-up for the big moment, when he led off the American 400 free relay in 47.26.

The previous American record, David Walters’ 47.33, had also lasted eight years, since the high-tech suit-era of 2009. It was faster than either Michael Phelps or Jason Lezak swam in their primes. Adrian, even in his successful quest to win Olympic gold in 2012, never touched that mark.

Dressel, all the sudden, had become the seventh-fastest performer in history in swimming’s glamour event, the 100 free.

For all of Dressel’s short course success—he’s the fastest man in history in the 100-yard free by three-quarters of a second—that moment was his long course breakthrough. His time was the fastest of the year by more than a half-second, his effort more than good enough to stamp his status as favorite for an individual World title.

“It’s not unexpected,” Adrian said. “Anybody who’s followed Caeleb in his trajectory the last couple years—I’m not surprised a bit.”

Dressel gave the Americans the lead of more than a second, but his teammates would be ever-grateful for his efforts a few moments later. Brazil put on an inspired effort over the next three legs, and Bruno Fratus flipped only two hundredths behind Adrian at the final turn, only for the stalwart American to hold him off.

But even after winning the gold medal, the typically-modest Dressel would not take more than his share of the credit.

“I’m only 25 percent of that relay. I tried to do my 25 percent the best I could, and I just wanted to do my part. That’s it,” he said.

Dressel had been a part of such a gold medal swim before in Rio. Comerford, swimming in her first major international final, had not. The American men had won Olympic gold in dramatic fashion one year earlier in Rio, while the women had won the 400 free relay only once at a major international meet since 2003.

“As a team, we set a goal at the beginning of training camp to win this relay– we wanted to make a statement with this relay,” Kelsi Worrell said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been on top.”

And the American coaching staff entrusted Comerford to swim in the same position as Dressel: to lead off, to set the tone.

“It’s really good to know that they believe in me,” Comerford said. “We just wanted to get out there. I just love to race, and I wanted to fight for the girls.”

Their belief was rewarded. Unlike Dressel, she did not dominate the opening leg—in fact, she was almost a full second behind Sarah Sjostrom—but Sjostrom had just crushed the world record, touching in 51.71 to become the first woman to ever swim under 52 seconds.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Comerford came in at 52.59, seemingly an eternity behind, but it was a new American record—faster than Manuel swam last summer in Rio on her way to Olympic gold. She became the fifth-fastest performer in history in the event.

When she had arrived at U.S. Nationals one month earlier, Comerford’s lifetime best in the 100 free had been 53.91

Ledecky, as it turns out, was the one who went by Sweden to put the Americans in front—where they would stay. Manuel anchored in a blistering 52.14, tied for the third-best split in the field, to seal the deal. But it took Comerford crushing another best time during her already-stellar summer to give her teammates a chance.

As often happens at major meets, there comes a point when the Americans go on a gold medal run, dominating event after event. At the Olympics in Rio, it came on night two, with Ledecky’s gold medal in the 400 free and then the men’s Phelps-fueled win in a dramatic 400 free relay.

This year in Budapest, night two won’t be so prolific—Dressel in the 50 fly appears to be the team’s only gold medal chance. But after one day, the Americans are firing on all cylinders, which should be scary news for the rest of the world with seven days to go.

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Srsly

    “When the daunting double was complete”

    It’s a 50 fly and a 100 free, David. Daunting? C’mon now.

  2. avatar
    superfan

    Your site should be called “Swimming America” and not swimming World!

    • avatar
      wcz

      Well you should read it as ” the world of swimming”

  3. avatar
    commonwombat

    Will only comment on the 2 relays

    Mens: USA were given a considerably greater scare than expected with BRA (finally) delivering the M4X100 relay they have promised for so long but never delivered. HUN … undoubtedly buoyed by their homecrowd were perhaps bronze medallists but they still delivered in the water and were clearly ahead of the dual disqualified ITA & AUS.

    As for individual 100 portents; Dressel clearly firms as favourite with his AR however talk of a WR may be a tad ambitious as leading off a 4X100 on the first night is probably the optimal opportunity to take a run at a really fast time whereas one is likely to have the legacies of other races in one’s system when the individual race comes around. Adrian …. disregard the time but respect the race-craft. No GBR M4X100 so no read on Scott but McEvoy was unexceptional

    Women: SWE clearly realised that any medal chance would be dependent on others breaking or having a really bad night so front ended with SS & Coleman with the primary goal of giving SS an optimal run at the W100free WR ….. duly delivered.

    To the race itself, every due cudos to the US team for their victory albeit probably harder than they expected given their weakened opposition. Comerford’s AR off the gun most certainly firms her in minor medal betting for the individual race.

    AUS … were probably a deal better than expected given the depleted nature of their line-up. C2 certainly pulled that swim out of somewhere but I’d be loath to swim her again at this meet unless the W4XMED actually DOES look like being realistic medal contenders. A major PB split by McKeon & a very creditable debut from Jack

    NED made it clear that they aren’t going away just yet in this event with Kromowidjojo delivering a killer anchor. CAN were one swimmer short of their optimal line-up but are still likely to be major players going forward.

    In short, its probably premature to proclaim “a changing of the guard” in this relay. This was probably a stronger US relay than Rio but only just managed to beat a depleted AUS. SHOULD C2’s shoulder issues prove terminal (career-wise) and C1 not make a return then such a claim would have credence but until those questions have answers, this relay looks like being a great ongoing cat-fight leading into Tokyo …. with some very real competition from outside “the old firm”.