Locked Out of Worlds, Caeleb Dressel Turns Toward 2024

Caeleb Dressel -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Locked Out of Worlds, Caeleb Dressel Turns Toward 2024

Before even arriving in Indianapolis, Caeleb Dressel and his coach, Anthony Nesty, knew that a trip to a fourth consecutive World Championships was an unlikely proposition. For all of Dressel’s talent and his résumé, taking six months away from normal training was far too much to overcome in just a couple months. When Dressel returned to swimming in late February, he started with only three practices per week, adding one additional workout every two weeks before topping out at eight in early May.

“The people who came here to qualify for the meet, except for one DQ, did, and we’re pretty happy with where we’re at,” Nesty said, revealing his pre-meet expectations for Dressel without even uttering his name.

Dressel’s trip to U.S. Nationals officially concluded Saturday morning when he tied for 22nd in the 50 freestyle prelims. His time of 22.72 came up 1.68 seconds behind his own American record of 21.04. Dressel chose to scratch the C-final and return home. Previously, Dressel had finished third in the 50 butterfly (23.35), in a tie for fifth in the 100 fly (51.66) and 19th in the 100 free (49.64), with none of his times close to his career-bests.

To an outside observer, those times might appear pedestrian and extremely disappointing for Dressel, but Nesty said otherwise: “Overall, very pleased. He was very happy with where he’s at. We have a starting point, and we can go from there.”

Dressel, a seven-time Olympic gold medalist and 15-time World Championships medalist, left early from the 2022 World Championships with undisclosed health concerns, and he revealed in early September that he had been away from the pool since. He said that he had been happy without swimming but knew it was possible to have both the sport and his mental health. He stayed away from Nesty’s group at the University of Florida until he knew he was ready to return in the proper headspace — as long as that would take.

Currently, Dressel is lacking physical fitness and strength from his time away, but judging Dressel’s performance in Indianapolis on time alone would be missing the point of why he needed the break in the first place.

“Mentally, he’s right where he needs to be,” Nesty said. “He’s happy, first time I’ve seen him happy swimming in a long time. A happy athlete is a fast athlete. Obviously, he’s not fast yet, but under the circumstances, where he’s at, he did post some fast times.”

The difference in Dressel now compared to one year ago has been evident to friends and teammates, and he has brought a joyful and impactful presence to practice.


Caeleb Dressel, Dare Rose & Michael Andrew after the men’s 50 butterfly final — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I think we’re all just really happy that he’s here and competing,” freestyle great Katie Ledecky said. “There’s so much that you all don’t see on a day-to-day basis of the joy that he brings to the pool deck every day and the impact that he has on his teammates. When he came back, it was a different atmosphere in Gainesville. Macguire McDuff in the A-final of the 100 free, training with Caeleb every day. I think Macguire would tell you that he’s learned a lot from Caeleb, and every day, it’s inspiring to be next to him.”

“We’re a really cohesive training group, the training group in Florida. Even though Caeleb’s a sprinter and I’m a distance swimmer, we usually have warmups together, and it’s so fun to have that atmosphere where we’re all supportive of each other. It’s just great to have him here.”

It was an spectacle when Dressel raced in the C-final of the 100 free, held after all the championship and consolation heats had concluded for the night. The spotlights selectively illuminating the Indiana University Natatorium during the glamor races had ceased for the evening, and the Peacock live stream of finals had concluded. But enough swimmers ranked ahead of Dressel scratched, so he decided to swim.

“He hasn’t done it in a long time at this stage in front of people,” Nesty said. “For an athlete of his caliber, it’s good for him to know where he’s at, but it’s also good for people to sit in the stands and see Caeleb back swimming and being happy. Overall, everybody benefited from it.”

Dressel will not take advantage of that opportunity Saturday, opting instead for time with his wife, Meghan, and their pets, and he will not be joining Nesty, Ledecky and many of his longtime teammates in Fukuoka for the World Championships. Instead, the 26-year-old will focus on rebuilding power in the weight room and swimming some until full-scale training returns in August.

Looking big picture, consider this week’s Nationals a check-in, a diagnostic test of Dressel’s fitness and abilities that he could only attempt once clearing the mental hurdles he was facing. Now, there’s a starting point from which to build on the way to a return trip to Indianapolis. The next U.S. Olympic team will be selected one mile away at Lucas Oil Stadium, and Dressel hopes to be a part of that squad heading for the Paris Olympics. Naturally, he will be compared to his best self, the man who was untouchable at major meets over a five-year stretch.

The strong belief among those closest to Dressel is that by June 15, 2024, his swimming will look like the Dressel of 2017 through 2021, perhaps not as fast but plenty competitive. If not the consensus best swimmer in the world, Dressel would still be among the key performers for the United States, including for relay duty. Physically, Dressel never lost his technique, which would be nearly impossible to regain, and his attitude and habits have convinced coaches and teammates of what is possible.

“He’s more disciplined than ever,” 200 and 400 free runnerup Kieran Smith said. “He never had an issue with discipline, but he’s just taking such good care of himself outside the water. He’s trained well, and I think with another year of this kind of mentality, he’ll be awesome.

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