Under Pressure? Caeleb Dressel Shrugs It Off and Takes Care of Business

caeleb dressel
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

The panicked whispers of swimmers, coaches and officials grew louder: What was wrong with Caeleb Dressel? In the aftermath of a shocking and almost surreal sixth-place finish in the 100 free to open his week at U.S. Nationals, Dressel was touched out by Michael Andrew in the 50 fly and then qualified fourth for the 100 fly final, his time of 52.00 more than two seconds off his lifetime best.

But when the moment came in the final, Dressel was Dressel, and order was restored. The unbeatable aura was back as the 21-year-old powered his way home in 26.64, almost a half-second quicker than any of his competitors. He finished in 50.50, winning by six tenths of a second.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

So after all the hoopla, no long-term damage. His spot at the Pan Pacific Championships secured, Dressel can swim any event he wants when he gets to Tokyo in two weeks, including the 100 free.

Still, there had been a two-day period when doubt crept in—what if he didn’t get the Pan Pacs opportunity to redeem himself? At this point in the meet, only two swimmers per event are guaranteed spots in Tokyo, and if he was as far off his best form as a 48.50 100 free indicates, maybe he would have trouble in the 100 fly and 50 free as well.

So what did happen Wednesday night, when Dressel was an astounding 1.33 seconds off his own American record?

“Just a bad swim,” Dressel said. “You can’t avoid it in the sport. I’ve had a couple of good meets back to back, so it’s kind of refreshing to have just a really bad swim.”

He wouldn’t put the blame on looking past Nationals and focusing his preparation for Pan Pacs—although Gregg Troy, Dressel’s coach, emphasized that “there’s plenty left.” As for the possibility that the transition to professional swimming took away from his training, Dressel conceded that, yes, he had been really busy.

“It was stressful—I hate to use that word because I feel like I manage my time really well and I feel like I handle stress very well,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything has changed, but it definitely affected me, I think more than I know. Troy is probably going to tell you that if you interview him. He thinks it affected me a lot more than I think I did. He’s probably right.”

Troy commended the manner in which Dressel handled the tough transition, but he did add this: “He shoulders a lot of the burden himself. It weighed on him just a little bit.”


During his two days of waiting, Dressel spoke with Brendan Hansen, who made three Olympic teams during his career as one of the world’s best breaststrokers. Hansen’s advice: Just take it stroke by stroke. But Dressel was never worried—that’s not the right word for how he felt, he said. Yes, he was surprised by his 100 free, and yes, he felt pressure—in fact, he embraced it.

“I do enjoy the pressure,” Dressel said. “I understand what comes with the sport and makes it fun and exciting. I know what’s on the line. I’m setting up the next two years with a race that lasted 50 seconds. I do enjoy that, and I didn’t want to crumble under that.”

For the average swimmer, one bad swim could derail an entire meet. The task of picking up the pieces after a race-gone-wrong can be extremely challenging, and the good swimmers are the ones who succeed


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But Dressel is not just a good swimmer—he’s exceptional, perhaps crafting the foundations of an all-time great career. We’ve seen some of the signs: The brute force of his start and underwater kicks, his desire for more and more volume in training and his willingness to take on events outside his typical specialties.

In Irvine, we saw another sign: After one race that was “absolutely horrible,” he shrugged it off and called the deviation from his usual success “refreshing.” Then, he thrived under especially tense circumstances in the 100 fly.

And as is par for the course for any great swimmer, he wasn’t totally satisfied with a swim slower than his lifetime best, the 49.86 near-world record from last year’s Worlds. Alas, 50.50 was merely the 15th-quickest effort in history, a time only five other men have ever surpassed. It’s also substantially faster than his winning time from last year’s Nationals (50.87).

The hunch here is that two weeks from now at Pan Pacs, Dressel will show off some of the form that won him seven gold medals at the World Championships in Budapest. He will take runs at the three individual world records that barely eluded him last year. Even if he comes up short, he will again stamp his case as the best swimmer in the world.

Dispensing with the pressure and firing off a swim like this 50.50 100 fly? That’s pretty darn impressive, too.

Video Interview with Caeleb Dressel:

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Given that he trains with Ryan Lochte and that every other swimmer who actually appeared for pre-meet press conferences was asked about it, it is surprising that no one in the media scrum asked Dressel about the Lochte suspension and also about Madisyn Cox. Has it impacted him at this meet, his approach to the meet, his preparation, etc?