What Happened to Caeleb Dressel in the 100 Free at Nationals?

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

If you watched Caeleb Dressel swim in the 100 free prelims, you probably wondered: What was going on? Was he just sandbagging, or did he fade down the stretch during the prelims when he fell to fourth in his heat? Regardless, the World champion, the American record-holder and arguably the best swimmer in the world would swim out of lane one in perhaps his best event.

In the final, Dressel got off to his signature lightning-quick start, but he lost that early advantage on the field before he reached the turn. He came off the wall level with the rest of the heat, and very quickly, it was clear he wasn’t going to win the race.

He didn’t even finish in the top four. Dressel was sixth in 48.50, more than 1.3 seconds off his American record of 47.17 from last year’s World Championships.

Whoa. And what? Dressel was just four months removed from dusting everyone and anyone at his final NCAA championships. He won each of his three titles at that meet, the 50 free, 100 fly and 100 free, by more than a second. On Wednesday, he looked average. Even in an exceptionally deep field, Blake Pieroni’s winning time of 48.08 was almost a second behind Dressel’s best.

So what happened? So far, no one has a definitive answer. Maybe the sudden slowdown has to do with some lifestyle changes of a 21-year-old newly professional swimmer. Perhaps Dressel, like Katie Ledecky, Lilly King, Ryan Murphy and other veterans, held back on a full taper with the Pan Pacific Championships coming up two weeks later.


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Maybe that was indeed the plan for Dressel and his coach, Gregg Troy, but neither expected a struggle just to get onto the Pan Pacs team. Yes, if Dressel manages to qualify in the 100 fly or 50 free, he could still swim the 100 free at Pan Pacs and perhaps swim fast enough to secure a spot in the event at the 2019 World Championships, but first he has to earn his way to Tokyo.

And be honest: Regardless of taper or no taper, no one expected the reigning World Swimmer of the Year to be in this position. Every time Dressel has raced since the Olympics, he has dominated. No way to see this coming.

But life sometimes gets in the way of convenient straight-line progressions in swimming careers—like making the transition from collegiate to professional swimming. Nathan Adrian, he of seven straight 100 free titles at U.S. selection meets, remembers having to deal with it himself seven years ago.

“People forget because it was 2011, and I didn’t medal in anything, just relays. It’s really, really, really difficult to make that transition,” Adrian said. “You’re not just doing school and swimming. It’s a tough balance that everybody has to manage differently.”

Adrian added that long-term, it’s probably not a big deal. He wasn’t surprised in Budapest when Dressel suddenly blossomed into a world-killer, and he won’t be surprised if—in Adrian’s eyes, when—Dressel gets back to that level. Just a bump in the road.

Next up on Thursday morning, Dressel tied Michael Andrew for the top time in the 50 fly at 23.33 but scratched out of the 200 free prelims. So we continue through the meet without a definitive answer. What happened? Perhaps over the next few days, we’ll find out.

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4 years ago

Late off the block… Can’t recover in that finals field!

4 years ago

He changed his recovery technique, which also may have affected his propulsive technique. Or vice-versa. I think his current recovery technique is better but he may not be completely used to it yet.

4 years ago

…Flight of Icarus…