The Night Caeleb Dressel Became a Superstar

Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

By David Rieder.

Caeleb Dressel was hyped as the next great American sprinter. As for the hype, well, he earned it. But that’s a lot to live up to, and plenty of talented teenagers—in all sports, not just swimming—have been viewed as disappointments because they have not turned out to be all that was promised.

Six World Championship gold medals later, Dressel sure has not disappointed.

The moment was in mid-December of 2013, in Greensboro, N.C., at USA Swimming’s Short Course Junior Nationals. Dressel, representing the Bolles School at the time, was leading off a 200-yard free relay at the start of the first night of finals.

Dressel’s time was 18.94. He had become the first high school-age swimmer to ever break 19 seconds. The packed house at the Greensboro Aquatic Center went nuts.

The meet was packed with talent and names that would go on to become stars in the future—including future U.S. Olympians Kathleen Baker, Gunnar Bentz, Townley Haas and Jay Litherland—but Dressel stole the show.

And then, right after that, Dressel stopped swimming.

“I wasn’t even thinking about swimming during that time period,” Dressel said. “During those six months, I didn’t touch water. I didn’t even think about touching water.”

Would that really be it? Would someone that talented really call it quits at age 17?

No, he wouldn’t. That summer water would call him back, and he honored his commitment to go to the University of Florida and swim for head coach Gregg Troy.

Here Comes Dressel

Once he came back, Dressel’s progression was rapid and constant. He won his first NCAA championship as a freshman at Florida and his first National Championship that summer. In the summer of 2016, he made his first U.S. Olympic team and ended up leading off the U.S. men’s 400 free relay.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. coaching staff picked Dressel to go first over a man very used to leading off those American relays, Michael Phelps. They needed every advantage possible, and it was already abundantly clear that the powerful Dressel had one of the best starts in the world. The decision certainly paid off, as the American men won gold.

During his junior season at Florida, he swept all three of his individual events at the NCAA championships and smashed the all-time fastest marks in both the 100-yard free and 100-yard fly. Even after U.S. Nationals, when Dressel won three events and finished a close second in the 100 free, there was barely any inkling this was possible.

Then came his first final of the World Championships, when Dressel led off the American men’s 400 free relay. The U.S. team was in front as soon as Dressel went off the blocks and would never relinquish the lead.

Dressel ended up pulling away from the field and touching the wall in 47.26—yes, more than six tenths under his lifetime best and faster than David Walters’ eight-year-old suit-aided American record of 47.33. The team ended up needing every bit of that effort as Nathan Adrian held off Brazil to win gold.

Dressel’s one slip-up came on day two, when he ended up fourth in a tight 50 fly final. On day three, he had a day off. Immediately after that, his legend was born.

He split a then-stunning 49.92 as the butterflyer on the American mixed 400 medley relay. The next day, he dominated the men’s 100 free final, lowering his American record to 47.17 and winning gold by a massive seven tenths of a second.

Winning his first individual World title in that fashion? Extremely impressive—but apparently nothing compared to what he had up his sleeve for the next two days.

Dressel had qualified to swim the 50 free, 100 fly and the 800 free relay during the morning session on day six. But Troy decided that that would be a little too much, and the 800 free relay was out.

“I had to look a day ahead. That would have been three events last night and three events tonight,” Dressel said. “I would have liked to have been on it, but I think it would have been in the best interests of Team USA for me to not swim it.”

Just two events? Easy, apparently. He qualified second in the 50 free prelims and then returned to the pool and dropped a 50.08 in the 100 fly.

Yes, that was Dressel’s best time by seven tenths of a second. Yes, it made him the third-fastest performer of all-time and the fastest man ever in a textile suit by three tenths. At that point, it was becoming so normal.

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

That night, he added an American record in the 50 free and took another hundredth off his 100 fly time. All in a day’s work, right?

Day seven would throw another wrinkle his way—a triple. He would go for individual golds in both the 50 free and 100 fly, about 40 minutes apart, and then he would lead off the mixed 400 free relay.

No swimmer, man or woman, had ever won three gold medals in one session at a World Championships.

First came the 50 free. As per usual, Dressel was off the blocks and immediately in front. And once again, he won gold, his time of 21.15 another new American record, again the fastest time ever in a textile suit.

Forty minutes later, he returned to lane four inside the Danube Arena for the 100 fly final. Two lanes over was a familiar face: Dressel’s high school training partner and Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling.

The Rivalry

Schooling and Dressel have known each other for eight years, since a 13-year-old Schooling moved to Jacksonville to train at Bolles. They had never considered themselves rivals, mostly because Dressel never considered himself a butterflyer.

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Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Then came the 2017 NCAA championships. Schooling was the Olympic gold medalist, the undisputed favorite in the 100-yard fly. But Dressel used a ridiculous final turn and a final 25 where he did not breathe to get the win.

They would meet again at Worlds. Schooling was the man hyped up as a potential threat to the world record. Well, at least until Dressel swam his 50.08 in prelims Friday morning.

Swimming two lanes apart in the final in Budapest, it was never any contest. Yet again, Dressel got ahead off the start and never looked back. He went out in 23.31 at the 50-meter mark, three tenths ahead of anyone else in the field. He came home in 26.55, again faster than anyone else in the field.

He finished in 49.86. Schooling finished almost a full second back, tying for bronze in 50.83.

No one had broken 50 since full polyurethane suits were banned eight years ago, and here was Dressel, finishing just four hundredths shy of a world record held by a guy named Phelps.

“That was phenomenal,” Schooling said. “There were no words to describe how fast that is. He just did 50 free, and he had a bunch of events before. That makes it even more impressive. That’s all, really.”

Taking His Shot at History

As Dressel jogged off the podium after receiving his 100 fly gold medal, he headed straight to the ready room to join Adrian, Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel for the mixed 400 free relay. Dressel, unsurprisingly, was penciled into the lead-off position.

Even after his two finals, he still had something left. He split 47.22, just five hundredths off his time from the individual 100 free, and he handed Adrian a huge lead. The U.S. team would go on to win gold by more than two seconds and smash the world record by more than three.

History had been made—three gold medals in one night.

“I don’t think there’s any accidents in this sport,” Dressel said. “I’ve been scrutinized for the training I do at Florida. I had three swims within an hour and a half of each other tonight, and I had to be on my A-game for all of them. It wasn’t an accident what happened tonight. I work well with Troy, and we were ready for it.”

And so, to end the night, Dressel stood on the medal podium again and received his sixth gold medal of the week. Six, one short of seven—and with the 400 medley relay to go.

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Only one man has ever won seven gold medals at a World Championships: Phelps. With the American men favored to take down the British and win gold in that relay, matching that accomplishment is well within reach.

“I have mixed relays helping me out, so I think it’s a bit different situation,” Dressel correctly pointed out. “I just want to keep doing my own thing. I don’t want to be compared to Michael. I absolutely love Michael—that was my first time being on a team with him in Rio. He’s a great guy, love him to death. He texted me this meet just to say, ‘Great job.’”

True, the mixed relays, just added to the World Championships program in 2015, do give Dressel a leg up when it comes to accumulating gold medals. But it’s still massively impressive, and three individual golds is nothing to sneeze at, either. Katie Ledecky is the only other swimmer in Budapest who has won three individual golds. Among men, Sun Yang and Adam Peaty are the only others to win two.

But for all the gold medals, all the American records and all the world record scares, Dressel has had no time to let it sink in. Perhaps after the medley relay he’ll think about that, but with all the races he has had—so far, 15—there’s been no time to focus on anything but the next task.

“It’s physically challenging and emotionally straining. You can’t get too caught up in one race,” he said. “You have to take one race as time, enjoy the moment and then get re-focused really quickly.”

In his press conference at the end of the night, a reporter asked Dressel if he felt prepared to become the new face of swimming, at least on the men’s side, in this era after Phelps’ retirement. Dressel disagreed with that assessment.

“I don’t think that can be put just on me,” he said.

But there’s nothing Dressel can do to stop it—after this week, the spotlight will be his. On a night when Ledecky won her fifth gold medal of the World Championships and 14th world title of her career, hers was the side story. Perhaps Matt Grevers, the oldest member of the U.S. team in Budapest and a team captain, put it the best.

“It’s awesome seeing the birth of a superstar.”

16 Comments

16 comments

  1. Halim Yussuf

    And NEW, Sprint king, Caeleb Dressel.

  2. avatar
    Lane Four

    The birth of a superstar? Yes. Oh good lord, yes. The sport gets better and better and better. My only question is when do we see him swim the 200IM? That could be the best of all.

  3. avatar
    reneo_uk@yahoo.co.uk

    Caeleb Dressel the superstar at the world swimming championship 2017. the next michael phelps

  4. avatar
    Fred

    Fantastic Article!

  5. avatar
    Fred

    Fantastic Article, David!

  6. Joseph Sill

    Yes, your now our new swimming SUPERSTAR HERO

  7. avatar

    Great article. Gregg Troy is an awesome coach. He came to my booth one time and was thrilled at my inventions for faster swimming. Even though he had the best underwater swimmer in the world in Lochte he bought three of our Fankles and complimented in what I was dong after my coaching retirement. It’s time to realize that his training methods make character development just as important as making swimmers ready to race. You see the Lochte that is a little wild, of course, but what you missed is that nothing was too hard for him in practice. Now you’re seeing the same thing in Dressel. Those of you who still think race pace training is sufficient might do well to listen to how Gregg does things. His sprinters lose nothing by being in superior condition and able to swim longer distances. If I return to coaching it will be to help someone break 4 in 500 free, etc. If I had one American coach to complete with that would be most likely to prepare his swimmer to do that better than me it would be Gregg. Notice how Hathan Adrian pulls with the wrong hand first off starts and turns. You’ll never see one of Gregg’s swimmers do that. Notice how the immensly talened Adiran bends his knees on the up kick in free; again you don’t see Lochte or Dressel do that. The discipline of Troy’s swimmers is no accident. Niether are his results. Congratulations Caleb and thank you for thanking your coach publicly. He deserves it.

  8. Rose Hollinshead

    I was at that Greensboro meet in 2013. Thrilling to watch Dressel’s rise to super stardom!

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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