U.S. Nationals: Caeleb Dressel Misses Final in His Return, But Bigger Goals Remain

Caeleb Dressel -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Nationals: Caeleb Dressel Misses Finals in His Return, But Bigger Goals Remain

The status of Caeleb Dressel, the biggest star of men’s swimming in the United States, was an enormous question entering U.S. Nationals. Just over one year earlier, Dressel departed from the World Championships halfway through the meet with undisclosed medical concerns. He went essentially silent after that, and his only public comments of any substance in the past year came in a September Instagram post, when he revealed he had not been swimming.

Dressel returned to training early in 2023, and he competed occasionally in the spring without posting any notable times. Had he trained and raced sufficiently to produce world-class times? When asked before the meet about what to expect from Dressel, Florida coach Anthony Nesty was vague.

“All we can do is support Caeleb where he’s at, and he knows where he’s at,” Nesty told NBC Sports. “We’ll see what we get next week. How he’s going to do, I don’t have a crystal ball. But, again, he’s one of the ultimate professionals. He loves the sport. He takes care of his body well. I think if you take care of your body, your chances of being successful are pretty good.”

The 26-year-old would always be compared to his own past magnificence, his seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, eight medals (six gold) at the 2019 Worlds and five golds at the Tokyo Olympics. However, he wouldn’t need to approach his ridiculous personal-best times — American records of 21.04 in the 50 free and 46.96 in the 100 free plus a world record of 49.45 in the 100 butterfly — to be an impact performer for the U.S. team at the World Championships, particularly in the relay events.

The answer Tuesday morning was clear. Swimming in the final heat of the 100 freestyle prelims, Dressel tried to stay with the field over the first lap, but it was clear by the 50-meter mark that he didn’t have the strength or endurance to keep pace with the college-aged swimmers around him. Matt King won the heat in 47.92, followed by Dressel’s Florida training partner Macguire McDuff and Notre Dame’s Chris Guiliano. Dressel’s time of 49.42 left him in eighth place, one-and-a-half seconds behind King. He finished 29th overall.

After the swim, Dressel and Nesty declined comment. He will not race Tuesday evening, and we’ll see what his status is for the remaining events on his schedule, including Wednesday’s 50 butterfly, Thursday’s 100 fly and Saturday’s 50 free. Given his relative lack of training, he is probably better prepared for a 50-meter race than a two-lapper, but at this point, there’s a very strong chance Dressel is not part of this year’s World Championships team.

That does not mean Dressel’s time as an elite swimmer is over. Almost a full year (354 days, to be exact) remains until the start of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Dressel has plenty of time to rebuild his base and power, to once again become a swimmer that can qualify for a third Olympic team, if indeed that remains his ambition. It’s too soon to count out a swimmer with so much experience, success and killer instinct in major races. And remember, Dressel has pulled off the comeback before: when he was a teenager, he stepped away from the sport for six months and struggled in his initial return before excelling in the summer of 2015 and qualifying for the Rio Games one year later.

Of course, Dressel turns 27 in August, so the road back from here is daunting. But now that he’s back racing against tough competition at Nationals, and that’s the start.