Tokyo Flashback: In Long-Awaited Showdown, Caeleb Dressel Seizes 100 Freestyle Crown From Kyle Chalmers

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Caeleb Dressel (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 100m freestyle 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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Tokyo Flashback: In Long-Awaited Showdown, Caeleb Dressel Seizes 100 Freestyle Crown From Kyle Chalmers

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 race has been hyped for several years. Before COVID-19 delayed the Olympic Games. During the pandemic – albeit with hope it would even take place. In the months leading up to the rescheduled Tokyo Games. Caeleb Dressel vs. Kyle Chalmers. The United States’ premier force vs. Australia’s top gun. Two-time world champion vs. reigning Olympic champion.

The duel had it all, and the showdown certainly lived up to its billing on Thursday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. If some ballyhooed matchups fizzle out ont he big stage, that scenario did not fit the classic delivered by Dressel and Chalmers. Rather, it wasn’t until the touch that the victor was known, exactly what is desired from an Olympic final.

Blasting to the front of the field via his typically explosive start, Dressel remained strong down the final lap and touched the wall in an Olympic-record time of 47.02, just quick enough to deny Chalmers back-to-back golds. The Aussie was clocked in 47.08, with the bronze medal going to Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov in 47.44.

“I thought I executed well,” Dressel said. “I would’ve liked to have been out a little bit faster. But I’m happy with 47.0. I would’ve liked to go a little bit faster for a PR, but these moments are a lot different than Worlds. Olympics is a quite different feel. I think the goal here for everybody is to get your hand on the wall first, so I have no complaints.”

At the finish, Dressel glanced to the scoreboard to digest what unfolded, and upon realizing his triumph, the 24-year-old glanced upward with what appeared to be a sense of relief across his face, which gave way to emotions on the broadcast and on the medal stand.

For Dressel, who has been the face of the sport for the past few years, individual gold was the only missing element in a career portfolio packed with achievements. Now, that checkbox has been ticked. The emotions of it are different, not better or worse, but just different.

“It is a lot different,” he said. “I guess I thought it would be, but I just didn’t want to admit to it. It’s a lot tougher. You have to rely on yourself. There’s no one to bail you out if you have a bad split. It’s a lot different.”

The battle between Dressel and Chalmers was a clash of styles, the American a fast-starting speedster whose explosiveness off the starting blocks is unmatched in the sport. Conversely, the Australian is a closer whose tactic is to remain close to the front of the field on the outward 50 meters and rely on his homecoming power on the homecoming lap.

Adding to the intrigue was the presence of Kolesnikov, who entered the final as the top seed whose skill set is of the Dressel approach. The silver medalist in the 100 backstroke earlier in the week, the Russian possesses raw speed and owns the world record in the 50 backstroke. Those fast-twitch muscles – obviously – were on display as the Games decided its champion in what is often referred to as the sport’s blue-ribbon event.

While some rivalries are bitter and contentious, such as Alexander Popov vs. Gary Hall Jr. and Kosuke Kitajima vs. Brendan Hansen, the Dressel-Chalmers rivalry has been nothing but respectful. They have lauded one another’s talents and used each other to elevate the event. Making the rivalry even more engaging has been its back-and-forth nature.

Consider the past:

  • As Chalmers mined Olympic gold at the Rio Games in 2016, Dressel was sixth.
  • At the 2017 World Championships, which Chalmers missed due to injury, Dressel captured his first world title in the event.
  • The advantage returned to Chalmers at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, where he won gold in the 100 freestyle to a shared silver by Dressel.
  • At the 2019 World Championships, Dressel and Chalmers engaged in their finest showdown to date, with the American winning in 46.96, that scorching time needed to fend off the 47.08 of the Aussie.
  • In 2020, they waited.

Over the first half of the Games, it was evident Dressel and Chalmers were headed for another spectacular finish. For his part, Dressel looked strong on the leadoff leg of the United States’ title-winning 400 freestyle relay, and was solid in the first two rounds of the 100 freestyle. As for Chalmers, his superb anchor leg in the 400 free relay propelled Australia to the bronze medal, and the 23-year-old easily managed the prelims and semifinals of the 100 freestyle.

Indeed, the final shook out as expected. Dressel notched the fastest split over the first lap, turning in 22.39. He was followed by Kolesnikov at 22.49 and Chalmers at 22.71. Down the last lap, Chalmers popped the fastest split, going 24.37. But Dressel was timed in 24.63, an effort that got the job done.

With two gold medals pocketed, Dressel still has four events to contest in Tokyo – the 100 butterfly, 50 freestyle and a pair of relays. Dressel is favored in each of his solo events, but the relays bring some uncertainty. The United States could finish anywhere on the podium in the mixed medley relay and the men’s 400 medley relay. There is a chance for Dressel to win six gold medals, which would elevate him to special status in Olympic lore. Historically, only Michael Phelps (2004/2008), Mark Spitz (1972), East Germany’s Kristin Otto (1988) and the Unified Team’s Vitaly Scherbo (1992) have matched or eclipsed six gold medals. All are swimmers except Scherbo, who is a legend from gymnastics, and Otto’s accomplishments are clouded by her connections to East Germany’s systematic-doping program.

Chalmers was trying to join an exclusive club as a back-to-back Olympic champion in the event, territor explored only by legends Duke Kahanamoku (1912/1920), Johnny Weissmuller (1924/1928), Popov (1992/1996) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (2000/2004). Dressel is the 11th American (totaling 13 titles) to win Olympic gold in the event.

“It is a bit bittersweet,” Chalmers said. “To get second is amazing, and to back it up with gold in Rio and the five-year journey, (which) has been really challenging and to get silver is special but to be so close, it does hit home a little bit.”

Kolesnikov, too, had conflicting feelings about his finish. While it was pleasing to win another Olympic medal, he was hoping for a better performance.

“A little bit disappointed because it wasn’t the time I wanted to show – first of all for me, second for everyone,” Kolesnikov said. “Such different feelings right now. I’m third at the Olympics, which is really good because everybody wants Olympics, and I am third fastest right now. But at the same time, it’s not the time that I showed yesterday (European record in the semifinal) and yesterday I knew that I can do better.”

Men’s 100 Freestyle

World Record: Cesar Cielo, Brazil, 46.91 (2009)
Olympic Record: Eamon Sullivan, Australia, 47.05 (2008)

Final Results

1. Caeleb Dressel (United States) 47.02
2. Kyle Chalmers (Australia) 47.08
3. Kliment Kolesnikov (Russia) 47.44
4. Maxime Grousset (France) 47.72
5. Sunwoo Hwang (Korea) 47.82
6. Alessandro Miressi (Italy) 47.86
7. David Popovici (Romania) 48.04
8. Nandor Nemeth (Hungary) 48.10

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