Back in prime time: the Caeleb Dressel show

GWANGJU, South Korea — The American Caeleb Dressel was out like a shot Thursday night and at the turn, the only turn in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, he was so far ahead it was breathtaking. 

It’s not supposed to happen like this. By definition, these were the eight best sprinters in the world. These, of course, are the world championships. And Dressel was making this race like it was him and then seven other guys. The only question was whether he was going to break the world record.

Not quite.

Caeleb Dressel celebrating his 100-meter victory // Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel celebrating his 100-meter victory // Getty Images

Dressel touched in 46.96 seconds, an American record and just five-hundredths behind Brazilian Cesar Cielho’s world mark, set 10 years ago.

Kyle Chalmers of Australia, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 100, finished second, in 47.08. In this event, 12-hundredths behind is a lifetime. 

To put what Dressel did in perspective: Chalmers’ previous lifetime best had been 47.35. On this night, Chalmers swam 27-hundredths faster than he had ever gone before. And still he got smoked.

Vladislav Grinev of Russia took third, in 47.82. To make the math easy, he was 86-hundredths behind. Again, in a one-turn race.

“You don't always get that magical feeling every night but you've just got to shut the brain off and go,” Dressel would say afterward.

“It was a fun race. I just wanted to try to zone out as best as I could and let that instinct and training take over. Then the last 15, just put my head down, sacrifice my body and get my hand on the wall.”

The race made for Dressel’s third gold in four events so far at the 2019 world championships. Earlier, he won the 50 butterfly, a non-Olympic event, and took part in the winning U.S. men’s 4x100 freestyle relay. He swam a leg in the silver medal-winning mixed-gender 4x1 medley relay.

Dressel’s previous best in this race had been the 47.17 he went to win the 2017 world championships in Budapest.

All in two years ago in Budapest, meanwhile, Dressel won seven golds, just like Michael Phelps did at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne — though two of Dressel’s were in mixed relays that weren’t on the program in Phelps’ time. If he wins out here this week, Dressel can still claim seven gold and, if he’s added to the 4x200 free relay, eight.

But this note: if Dressel gets added to that relay, he could swim three events on both Friday and Saturday night. To win eight gold medals in 2008, Phelps had to swim 17 times across nine days. But in all of Phelps’ Olympics, never — for emphasis, never — did he swim three times in one session.

A Dressel 100, meanwhile, is easy to deconstruct. 

Swimmers like to talk about back-end speed — in a 100, that means the final 50 meters. That’s the Chalmers method. Dressel buries you up front. 

On Thursday night, Dressel turned the first 50 in 22.29. That put him a full half-second ahead of Chalmers, who turned in third, Italy’s Marcelo Chierighini in second.

Chalmers, predictably, turned it on over the back half, swimming the final 50 in 24.29. But Dressel, who has deliberately and publicly been working on his back-end speed, managed a 24.67. Chierighini would ultimately fade to fifth in 47.93. The American Blake Pieroni took fourth, in 47.88.

That magical feeling, as Dressel called it? Being so close to the world mark? Asked if he is capable of more, he said, “Certainly that's the beauty of the sport. I get done with a race, I'm happy with it. Time goes by, and you get better.”