Tokyo Flashback: Caeleb Dressel Destroys Field For 50 Freestyle Gold Behind Olympic-Record Mark Of 21.07

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

Tokyo Flashback: Caeleb Dressel Destroys Field For 50 Freestyle Gold Behind Olympic-Record 21.07

One year has passed since the Olympic Games, delayed by a year due to COVID-19, unfolded in Tokyo. To celebrate what went down in the Japanese capital, Swimming World is revisiting the championship finals – each on their one-year anniversary – by once again running the stories that were posted after the medals were decided.

The pressure on him was immense. Cameras were everywhere. Millions of eyes watched on TV. The comparisons to a certain 28-time Olympic medalist were endless – and unfair. In a way, he was set up for failure more than he was for success. On a stage where a single mistake can be damning, and where he was the hunted, near-perfection was required.

Caeleb Dressel delivered.

Contesting his last individual event of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the 24-year-old American destroyed the opposition in the 50-meter freestyle, bolting to the front of the field and leading the pack into the wall. Dressel touched in an Olympic-record time of 21.07, with 2012 Olympic champion Florent Manaudou of France taking the silver medal for the second consecutive Games. Manaudou was timed in 21.55, just ahead of the 21.57 of Brazil’s Bruno Fratus. American Michael Andrew was fourth in 21.60.

Dressel’s margin of victory of .48, an eternity, obliterated the former record for winning margin. Prior to Dressel’s one-man show, the most-dominant Olympic victory in the 50 freestyle belonged to the United States’ Matt Biondi from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Biondi topped Tom Jager by .22.

By adding the 50 freestyle title to his collection, Dressel emerged from Tokyo as the only athlete to claim a trio of individual crowns. Not that it has been tried often, but Dressel is the first man to complete the sprint triple – gold medals in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. Biondi just missed at the 1988 Games, where he won both sprint-freestyle events, but was edged by .01 in the 100 fly by Suriname’s Anthony Nesty.

On the female side, East Germany’s Kristin Otto (1988) and the Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn (2000) pulled off the trifecta while starring in Seoul and Sydney, respectively. Otto’s success was aided by her nation’s systematic-doping program, as her name was listed on drug-schedule documentation that was released after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I knew I had to execute every race, prelims and semifinals included,” Dressel said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because my meet is back half. But you learn a lot about yourself and I felt I got better with each swim. I tried to convince myself that Worlds were the same, but you get on this stage and it’s different. I’ll stop lying to myself about that. (The Olympics) happens every four years and you have to be perfect in every moment. I would’t tell myself this during the meet, but after, I can look at it. It boils down to a very precise moment where you have to do your best.”

Dressel is not without his rivals. He has Kyle Chalmers to push him in the 100 freestyle, the Australian earning silver behind the American in that event by .06. In the 100 butterfly, Hungary’s Kristof Milak is the No. 2 performer in history and gave Dressel a battle down the finish of their final. The 50 free? There’s no one who can match Dressel’s explosiveness off the blocks and pure speed in the water.

The 50 freestyle features the smallest margin of error of any event on the program. A bad start. A mediocre streamline. A poor finish. Any of those miscues are magnified in a race that spans just one length of the pool and is over in 21 seconds. Yet, Dressel has developed such a cushion over the opposition, it is laughable.

Typically, hundredths of a second separate gold from silver in the splash-and-dash. Look at the titles of sprint great Anthony Ervin. When he won his first gold in the 50 freestyle at the 2000 Games in Sydney, he shared the top step on the podium with countryman and training partner Gary Hall Jr. In his second title surge, at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Ervin clipped Manaudou by .01. Hall repeated in 2004 by a hundredth.

For Dressel, the final of the 50 free was a race against the clock. With the outcome not in doubt, the question was whether he could get the world record of 20.91, set by Brazil’s Cesar Cielo in 2009, and at the height of the tech-suit era. Ultimately, Dressel came up shy of the record, but the performance was nonetheless spectacular. It was Dressel’s 12th race of the week and he still exhibited his trademark power and pop.

The way Dressel and Katie Ledecky handled themselves in Tokyo, while under the intense spotlight, affirmed their character and mental strength match what they bring to the pool. While Dressel has handled taxing schedules before, namely at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, the Olympic stage brings greater pressure and the attention of the world. Throughout the week, Dressel was sensational in managing all aspects of the Games, ranging from competition to doping control to media responsibilities.

“I think the U.S. has been dominant for so many years, and for me to have my stamp on the sport is special,” Dressel said. “I don’t want to take away anything from (Michael Phelps) or (Mark Spitz). It’s my goal to achieve what I can. It’s not my goal to be Michael or Mark. I exceeded my goals and did a good job, but I can be better. It was not a perfect meet. There are ups and downs and you have to find out how to roll with it.”

En route to the silver medal, Manaudou reached the podium in the event for the third consecutive Games, consistency from the 30-year-old that must be appreciated. Manaudou joins Hall as the only men to medal in the event at three Olympics, Hall owning two gold medals and a silver. For Fratus, his bronze medal was a career achievement. After medaling at the past three World Championships, the Brazilian chased his first piece of Olympic hardware – and got it.

“To stay on top for a long time like this, you have to be strong, mentally and physically,” Manaudou said. “You guys see the good moments, the good results. But you don’t really see the daily life and I assure you it is not super easy.”


Men’s 50 Freestyle

World Record: Cesar Cielo, Brazil, 20.91 (2009)
Olympic Record: Cesar Cielo, Brazil, 21.30 (2008)

Final Results
1. Caeleb Dressel (United States) 21.07
2. Florent Manaudou (France) 21.55
3. Bruno Fratus (Brazil) 21.57
4. Michael Andrew (United States) 21.60
5. Ben Proud (Great Britain) 21.72
5. Kristian Gkolomeev (Greece) 21.72
7. Lorenzo Zazzeri (Italy) 21.78
8. Thom de Boer (Netherlands) 21.79


Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x