Even in Latest Star Turn, Caeleb Dressel Not Afraid to Show Vulnerability

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates their victory in the men's 4x100m medley final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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Even in Latest Star Turn, Caeleb Dressel Not Afraid to Show Vulnerability

Caeleb Dressel walked through the mixed zone at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre for the final time Sunday, too spent to put on a shirt. As he stood with his teammates in the men’s 400 medley relay, minutes after they’d capped the Tokyo Olympics with a gold medal, he briefly leaned his head on the shoulder of teammate Zach Apple, who’d brought home that relay.

It was one of a series of instances when Dressel, in between winning five gold medals for the United States, offered a glimpse behind the veneer. In the moment, Dressel allowed himself to be vulnerable, to reveal that yes swimming five finals in the final two days of the meet wasn’t as easy as he can make it look, and he did so in full view of interlopers from outside the swimming fraternity.

“I’m really good at hiding my emotions until I’m not,” Dressel said later that day at a press conference. “I can put a pretty good show on before each race, but once it I shut it down, it floods out. It was a relief.

“This is not easy. It’s not an easy week at all. Some parts were extremely enjoyable; I would say a majority of them were not.”

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) holds up his gold medal after winning the men's 100m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel; Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA Today Sports

Dressel may have been the swimming story of these Olympics. But the story of the Games writ large was Simone Biles, who for her physical and mental health withdrew from the gymnastics events she has dominated from the better part of a decade and was expected to own again on the Olympic stage. Biles spoke to that pressure, to doing what she needed to do for herself and what she thought was best for the team.

They are myriad ways in which the viewing public, media included, have let Biles down. Among them is denying her the space to be human – when you opine in an ad campaign that gravity doesn’t apply to Biles, what other rules for human convention can?

As the American swimming star of these Games, Dressel offers constant reminders of his humanity, in a way that Biles has not always been permitted to. Whatever the pre-Games hype, Caeleb Dressel is not a swimming machine. His performances in the pool may seem automatic, but the process that goes into them is anything but. And Dressel has throughout the Tokyo Olympics taken pains to make sure no one confuses him for a robotic superstar, with his willingness to let his guard down and offer the media and the public snapshots of his struggles.

He’s offered a litany of such moments. His tears during the national anthem after winning his first gold medal indicated not just how special it was but served as a rebuke against anyone who thought it was pre-ordained. He reminded the media – when asked if he had any advice for Lydia Jacoby in the mixed medley relay – that the 17-year-old Alaskan had won her first individual Olympic gold before Dressel had. It can be easy to forget that Dressel swam only on the 400 free relay at the Rio Games and that his World Championship domination in the five years since has not come with, nor did it guarantee, a single Olympic medal.

On Saturday, when Dressel authored a dastardly triple with the men’s 50 free semifinals, men’s 100 fly final (a gold and world record) and mixed medley relay final, he admitted he was tired. And nervous. And ready to get the meet over.

Sunday, he said in both the mixed zone availability and the press conference that he’s, “kind of over swimming right now.” He admitted that in the nerves of Saturday’s triple, “swimming was a lot easier when no one knew my name.” He used as motivation for his daunting six-swim docket the fact that he’d done it plenty at Worlds, only belatedly exposing the fiction of that self-deception.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) and Bruno Fratus (BRA) react after the men's 50m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel, left, and Bruno Fratus; Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

“I tried to convince myself that Worlds was the same, and it’s the same competition, but it’s a lot different here,” Dressel said. “It’s a different kind of pressure, and I’m aware of that now and I can stop lying to myself. It means something different. It only happens every four years for a reason, and it’s 20-something seconds or 40-something seconds, you have to be so perfect in that moment, especially if you have another year, a five-year buildup or a 24-year buildup, whatever you want to call it, there’s so much pressure on one moment.

“Your whole life boils down to one moment that can take 20 or 40 seconds. How crazy is that?”

It is crazy. And for athletes who run from that truth, who pretend that’s not the way it works, that pressure can slowly drive you crazy. But instead of donning armor or feigning stoicism, Dressel allows himself to feel those challenges, whether he’s keeping a journal at the Olympics or not putting on a brave face for the media.

There’s no rosy glow to it. Yes, he was happy to be competing in Tokyo. But he was also darn happy to be done.

Yes, he’s grateful to be able to chase history with friends and teammates, to have his name uttered in the same sentence as Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard, it’s not lonely, it’s not miserable. That history doesn’t mean the wait in line for cafeteria food isn’t annoying or the quality of his sleep in Tokyo wasn’t lousy.

“I’ve had a couple breakdowns,” Dressel said on the Today Show before leaving Tokyo, in a conversation about Biles. “It does pile up, but it’s worth it.” He said it like it was normal, because for someone under that type of physical and mental strain, it sadly is normal.

The journey was fulfilling and gratifying, but it also sucked at times. There’s no valorizing it, but by acknowledging the struggles, Dressel allows room for the little moments of joy to rush in, like when he perked up at the press conference describing how he and some of the guys on the team taught the girls to play poker, to the detriment of Brooke Forde’s chip stack.

“I was nervous before every race,” Dressel said. “Every race was not perfect by any means. Every race approach wasn’t perfect. Every ready-room approach wasn’t perfect. Every morning when I’d wake up, the first words out of my mouth weren’t, ‘oh I’m so excited.’ Sometimes it was, ‘oh fuck, this is going to suck today.’ And that’s fine. It’s what you take from that moving forward, and I think I learned a lot. I really appreciated my time here, not because every moment was good, but because every moment I gained something.”

Among the things Dressel will gain after Tokyo is a mountain of pressure. Things didn’t get easier for Phelps after he won eight golds in Beijing. For the majority of the viewing public, the next time they think about Caeleb Dressel will be to task, “OK what’s next.” Dressel will face the same pressure, exacted as a tariff for the attention and fame his achievements will bring. The questions of what Dressel can do in Paris will surely have started already, whether he chooses to invite them in or not.

For now, Dressel is going to head home. He said he’s looking forward to spending time with his wife and family, and it’s possible that time away from the pool is in the offing, to bridge the uncertainty of the last five-year cycle with the condensed three-year one ahead.

Dressel leaves Tokyo knowing more about himself, as a swimmer and as a person. The world should take notice of Dressel as both, too.

“It’s not the most enjoyable process, but it is worth it,” he said. “Every part of it is worth it. Just because it’s bad doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. I didn’t want to hide anything. I’m glad to be done. I’m not going to try to cover that up in any way.”

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Juan Carlos Fortuño
1 year ago

Dear Matthew: Well done in reporting on Caeleb Dressel’s Olympic experience, warts and all. The fact that his vulnerability is a relevant topic is a sign that we still have some ways to go. Nonetheless, his openness to express his feelings and struggles will make a huge difference in the life of other future champions, and our society in general.

Dressel’s candidness in letting us know that the Olympic experience is not a two week fairy tale for the athletes, is enlightening for many. Shedding light on the humanity of a champion like him is a step forward not only for swimming, but for all sports.

Sincerely, Juan Carlos F.