Caeleb Dressel: the present and future of swimming

BUDAPEST — Swim geeks have known for years about Caeleb Dressel.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, near and far, no matter where you are, what we have here is our next big, big star: with three years until Tokyo and the 2020 Summer Games, let the red, white and blue hype commence.

Dressel, just 20 years old, on Saturday won two gold medals at these 2017 FINA championships in 33 minutes, three in just under 100. In sequence, he won the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly and then helped the U.S. win the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

He is the first — the first — to win three gold medals at a FINA world championships in the same finals session. Michael Phelps never did that. Ryan Lochte won four individual titles at the 2011 championships in Shanghai. But not three in one day.

“It’s unbelievable, man. It’s unheard of until now,” the Olympic sprint champion Nathan Adrian said late Saturday, adding, “Everything’s impossible until someone does it.”

Caeleb Dressel atop the medal stand after the 50-meter freestyle // Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel atop the medal stand after the 50-meter freestyle // Getty Images

Phelps always said his goal was to grow the sport. Dressel is both its present and the future, and in a big way. He is humble (said at a late Saturday news conference there’s plenty of talent at USA Swimming, not just him), funny (allowed as he has to take a college math test in two days and “I’m doing the best I can”) and swims events that normal people, not just swim geeks, can tune into and understand — even if not especially on their mobile phones — and they don't have to get much beyond the basics of a swim race.

Because what he’s good at can be built up for months if not years.

And then, in the pool, his individual swims don’t even last a minute.

What a combo.


Dressel in the water after winning the 100 fly // Getty Images

Dressel in the water after winning the 100 fly // Getty Images

“I’m excited about the future,” Dressel said in comments that referred to his swim program but just as well could have meant all the stuff beyond, adding, “I think this meet can set up a lot for me.”

In all, Dressel has won six gold medals at this meet. He could win a seventh Sunday in the men’s 4x1 medley relay.

The last American male to win seven golds at a world championship? That would be Phelps, at the 2007 worlds in Melbourne, Australia.

Those were the worlds at which Phelps was gearing up for his epic eight-for-eight run the next year in Beijing. Phelps shoulda-coulda won eight in Australia, because Ian Crocker was disqualified for an early start in the medley relay prelims; a Phelps seven-in-Melbourne and Dressel seven-in-Budapest comparison is not apples-to-apples because the FINA program now includes mixed relays that weren’t available in 2007; no matter, because seven-to-seven will get swimming onto sports highlight shows and sports talk radio.

“I’m not the same person as Michael,” Dressel said when asked if he was prepared for Phelps talk.

“The comparisons … are probably inevitable,” Dressel said when asked if he was prepared for what is coming. “A lot of people like to compare a lot of people to other people. But I’m not the same person as Michael.

“… My goal here is not to count medals. So, it’s a tough question. I don’t know if I welcome them. But I know they’re going to come. I don’t think it puts any more pressure on me. I just want to keep doing my own thing at this meet, and for the future. Yeah, that’s it.”

Here’s a starter course about the thing Dressel has been doing here in Budapest:

On Thursday, he won the men’s 100-meter free in 47.17 seconds, an American record.

That time dropped nine-hundredths off the mark he had set in the opening leg of Sunday’s men’s 4x100 relay, 47.26 — which broke the mark of 47.33 set by Dave Walters in 2009. Dressel’s 47.26 helped key the U.S. men to gold in the 4x1 relay, in 3:10.06.

Also Sunday: Dressel went 22.76 in the 50-meter fly semifinals, another American record, way under the 22.91 set by Bryan Lundquist in 2009. He would end up swimming 22.89, fourth, in the finals.

On Wednesday, Dressel picked up another relay gold, in the 4x1 mixed medley event, teaming with Matt Grevers, Lilly King and Simone Manuel to set a new world record (it’s a comparatively new event), 3:38.56. With a flying start, Dressel swam 100 meters of butterfly in — what at the moment seemed — an entirely ridiculous 49.92.

The mixed freestyle relay, Saturday night’s final event? Dressel swam a 47.52 opening leg, staking the U.S. to a new world record in the (again, comparatively new) event, 3:19.6. Nathan Adrian swam the second leg, followed by Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel.

This sort of thing is why swim geeks have been freaked about this guy, who comes from a small town in northeast Florida, Green Cove Springs, since he was in his early teens, when he started to break all kinds of age-group records.

For the past couple years, Dressel has been tearing it up for the University of Florida at the NCAAs, where the racing is in short-course yards; Olympic and world championship swimming is in long-course meters.

To see Dressel’s starts off the blocks is to see something akin to a top-fuel dragster. This explosiveness is why last year Dressel swam the first leg of the gold medal-winning 4x1 free relay in Rio. The others: Phelps, Ryan Held and Adrian.

There is so much about the sport that — to the outsider — can sometimes seem, well, forbidding. Look, it’s hard. The water is cold. In any debate about what Olympic sport is the most demanding, mentally and physically, swimming is right up there. Plus, you must have a certain temperament to want to push yourself in a discipline where wins and losses are typically measured, as they are in the sprints at this elite level, in thousandths or hundredths of a second.

In Saturday’s warmups at Duna Arena, just 25 minutes before the press of the finals, with longtime Florida and U.S. coach Gregg Troy ambling along the side of the pool deck, Dressel clung to a lane line, laughing. When he got out of the water a few seconds later, he clapped and laughed exuberantly. He didn’t then just walk off the deck. He skipped to the curtain backstage, doing a 20-year-old kid’s version of an Irish jig in a swim brief, replete with mid-air kick.

A little swim history here to put Dressel’s week in Budapest in context:

The 2009 FINA worlds in Rome were marked by the evolution of plastic suits that gave swimmers extra buoyancy and dramatically lowered times. Indeed, those 2009 worlds saw 43 world records. After, FINA changed the rules. Now swimmers have to race in what, for lack of a better term, are called “textile” suits.

With that, back to the 2017 FINA worlds, and the rest of the thing that Dressel has been doing, commencing with the 50 free:

Dressel’s 21.29 semi was the second-fastest “textile” 50 free in history, behind only the 21.19 that France’s Florent Manaudou swam to win the event at the 2015 worlds in Kazan, Russia.

That 21.29 was also an American record; Adrian had gone 21.37 in Kazan.

In the finals, all Dressel did was lay down the fastest textile swim ever, 21.15.Brazil’s Bruno Fratus took second, at 21.27. Understand that in a 50-meter race, 12-hundredths is a l-o-n-g time.

Dressel became the first American to win the 50 free at the worlds since Ben Wildman-Tobriner in 2007.

He also became the first man to win both the 50 and 100 free at the same worlds since Brazil’s Cesar Cielo did so in Rome in 2009.

Switching to the 100 fly, just like Dressel had to do:

At those 2009 worlds, Phelps went 49.82, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic 49.95. For eight years, no one had gone under 50 in textile. Truly, no one had come close.

On Friday, in the 100 fly prelims, Dressel swam 50.08. That made him No. 3 on the all-time 100 fly performers list, behind — obviously — only the times Phelps and Cavic put up in Rome.

That 50.08 was indisputably fastest-ever in textile — like, way better than the previous No. 3, 50.39 from Singapore’s Joseph Schooling when Schooling memorably defeated Phelps to win Olympic gold in Rio last year.

But wait. There’s more.

In the semis, Dressel went faster still, 50.07 — swimming the first half of the race in 23.26, the back half in 26.81. Inching closer, ever closer, to the 49s.

That the 50 free and 100 fly were scheduled — both in the semis and finals — close in time and, as a result, might Dressel be fatigued? Nah. That’s what hard training is for in college swimming, he had said after Friday’s racing.

In all, four guys swam under 51 in the semis — Dressel, Britain’s James Guy (50.67), Hungary’s Krisztof Milak (50.77) and Schooling (50.78). Milak’s semi time was a new world junior record.

This is how fast this 100 fly here in Budapest was going: Chad le Clos did not qualify, finishing 12th in the semis. He is the Budapest 200 fly gold medalist; Kazan and Barcelona 2013 world championships 100 fly gold medalist; and, of course, Rio 2016 and London 2012 Olympic 100 fly silver medalist, behind Phelps.

On the blocks for the 100 fly finals, Dressel crossed himself. Then he was off and out, fast and furious, to the first turn in 23.31. He was, of course, first. His second split: 26.55. Total time: 49.86, gold medal. First 100-fly textile swim under 50. Just four-hundredths of a second outside Phelps’s world record, second-fastest time ever.

“That was phenomenal,” Schooling said afterward. “There are no words to describe how fast that is.”

Here's a stab at describing the race itself: fastest 100 fly ever, top seven guys at or under 51-flat. Mehdy Metella of France went 51.16, and got eighth.

Milak took second, in 50.62. That time was, again, a world junior record. He is just 17.

Schooling tied for third, with Britain’s James Guy, in 50.83.

“I got my ass kicked,” Schooling said. “There’s really no other way to say that.”

Schooling and Dressel have known each other since they were barely teenagers; they swam on the same club team in Florida.

“For a guy to race so much, to come back and do all that, that’s pretty impressive,” Schooling said. “The time span — I’m more impressed by how he can swim event after event and just keep going.

“It’s something,” Schooling said, referring to Phelps, “we only see in Michael, in a way.”