No Concerns for Caeleb Dressel, Even After Off Performance in ISL Playoffs

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) after the men's 100m freestyle semifinals during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Caeleb Dressel -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

No Concerns for Caeleb Dressel, Even After Off Performance in ISL Playoffs

Whenever Caeleb Dressel swims even a little bit poorly at a meet, the whispers begin. “What’s wrong with Dressel?” the fans and pundits wonder. Because for essentially the past five years, Dressel has been unstoppable, from the stretch run of his magnificent collegiate career at Florida to his dominant World Championships performances in both 2017 and 2019 to, of course, his five-gold-medal effort at the Tokyo Olympics. The only significant hiccup came in the summer of 2018, when a motorcycle accident just before Nationals set him back, but he still won six medals at the Pan Pacific Championships.

This weekend, as Dressel swam in his first competition in two months in the fourth ISL playoff match, he was certainly off. He swam just two individual events (down from his usual four or five), and he was beaten by top rival Kyle Chalmers (and also Kristian Gkolomeev) in the 50 freestyle. Dressel was well off his season-best time and almost 2.5 seconds short of his world record in the 100 IM. His relay splits were nothing special.

One of the most memorable races of the Tokyo Games saw Dressel go head-to-head with Chalmers in the 100 free, and it took a monstrous finish where Dressel did not breathe the last 15 meters to hold off his Australian rival. But now, less month after Chalmers broke a 13-year-old world record in the short course meters 100 free, Dressel did not even race the 100 free this weekend in Eindhoven. If he did, he would have been hard-pressed to come within a second off Chalmers on this occasion.

So what is wrong with Dressel? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

kyle chalmers, caeleb dressel, olympics,Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) hugs Kyle Chalmers (AUS) during the medals ceremony for the men's 100m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Caeleb Dressel and Kyle Chalmers embrace after the Olympic medal ceremony for the 100 freestyle — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

It is late November, the Olympics wrapped up less than four months ago, and Dressel is 25 years old. Traditionally, post-college swimmers have few meets of consequence for 10 to 11 months after an Olympics, not until the following year’s World Championships team is selected. Dressel’s commitment to the ISL and the Cali Condors brought him back to racing just four weeks after Tokyo, with hardly a chance for a break in between. At that point, he surely had some gas leftover in the tank from his intense pre-Olympics training, and that carried him to strong performances through two-and-a-half meets.

But now, maybe we’re seeing that Dressel has not been as all-in with his training as usual. And good for him!

Dressel made the announcement this week that he is switching coaches, moving from Gregg Troy’s Gainesville-based pro group to swimming with the University of Florida college team under Anthony Nesty and Steve Jungbluth, both assistant coaches during Dressel’s time at Florida. That group already includes Olympic medalists Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith, and the great Katie Ledecky is a new arrival in Gainesville.

The timing of the announcement indicates that Dressel has taken time to consider his future, to step back and create a long-term plan best suited toward accomplishing his goals, both in swimming and in his personal life. And those goals may not necessarily include being at his absolute best for the end of this ISL season — which, once again, is perfectly OK.

Within a People Magazine story published last week, Dressel admitted that his “biggest goal after coming back from Tokyo [was] being able to breathe.” At the end of the Olympics, he explained that winning all those gold medals had been a stressful experience, and that screamed of a swimmer needing a refresh and a break. Certainly, he was entitled to one after Tokyo.

“I think I overdid it, to be honest,” Dressel told People. “I got great results, but I think it was to a fault. Because I drove myself crazy and I don’t think that’s fair to myself. I don’t want to end up leaving the sport early or hating it because I didn’t give myself time to respect the water and I feel like the water has always respected me. I would like to prioritize myself a little bit more instead of swimming.”

Balance is a good thing. He hopes that achieving that will help him stay in the sport longer, maybe even enjoy the process of striving for greatness a little more than during the last Olympic cycle. He is not going to throw that away to maximize performance in this pro league that, frankly, means less than his swimming at a global long course championship.

Caeleb Dressel (photo: Mike Lewis)

Caeleb Dressel racing during the 2021 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

At those meets, the Olympics and the World Championships (albeit to a lesser extent), legacies are built. Dressel has been the preeminent male performer at three of those meets, and he has already secured his spot on the short list of all-time swimming greats. He is one of just three male swimmers to ever win three or more individual gold medals in one Olympics. Joining a list with Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps buys a swimmer some serious cache.

Dressel will have the opportunity to continue bolstering his legacy at championship meets over the next three years, particularly with significant challengers in his main events: Chalmers and several young up-and-comers are nipping at his heels in the 100 freestyle, and 21-year-old Kristof Milak looms in the 100 butterfly. Maintaining his supremacy in those races will be extremely difficult for Dressel, and the effort to do so will be worthy of his energy, whether his Olympic title defenses at the 2024 Olympics in Paris are successful or not.

But right now, he is not going to sacrifice balance and perspective — perhaps the traits he most needs in order to extend his reign as the world’s best male swimmer — to be 100% on-point for the end of this ISL season.

That said, Dressel is perhaps the best ever at applying his athleticism to swimming, particularly with his starts, turns and underwaters, and those skills translate even more noticeably to short course. So he may well be back to his old dominant form by the time he and his Cali Condors race in the ISL final in two weeks.

If not, he deserves a pass. In the long run and right now, that’s what’s best for Caeleb Dressel the person and what’s best for Caeleb Dressel the athlete.

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5 months ago

-sean groeber

5 months ago

-sean groeber

5 months ago

One of FOUR… don’t forget Matt Biondi in 1988!

Dressel is the GOAT
5 months ago
Reply to  Kian

No, one of 3.

Matt Biondi didn’t win the 100 fly. He won 2 golds in 50 and 100 free.