GWANGJU, South Korea — As our gaze turns inexorably toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, you could feel here Saturday night at the 2019 FINA swim championships the red, white and blue hype machine kick-starting into full-on zoom, the jet fuel pouring into hot engines already burning orange, ready to roar to white hot, the Caeleb Dressel rocket about to blast off like a Saturn V to the moon, epic, enormous, ridonculous in every regard.
You might even say — Phelpsian.
The problem with the comparisons that surely will be drawn between now and next July 24, when the Tokyo Olympics get underway, is elemental.
Caeleb Dressel can break — has broken — Michael Phelps’ race records. Here, for instance, he smashed one of Phelps’ singular achievements, 49.82 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly. Dressel went 49.5. In the semifinals, for goodness sake.
That is hype-worthy. No doubt. But for all the hype, each and every bit of it, Caeleb Dressel has a math problem. Six is not eight. Seven is not eight. It’s that problematic.
In 2008, at the Beijing Games, Michael Phelps did the impossible. He went eight-for-eight.
At these world championships, assuming another win Sunday night in the 4x1 medley relay, Dressel — just as he did at the worlds in 2017 in Budapest — will get to seven.
At an Olympic Games, because the program is not the same as at a worlds, it is very hard — right now — to see Caeleb Dressel getting past six.
There is no 50 fly at an Olympics, for instance. And there will be only one mixed-gender relay on the 2020 schedule.
Of course, six at an Olympic Games is a big ask, and a very big part of that ask depends on the relays, and the relays — see Jason Lezak in the 4x1 free relay in 2008 — depend on other people.
But when it comes to singular brilliance, it’s very hard to see how — if this week in Gwangju is any indication — Caeleb Dressel is gonna be beat.
In the 50 free, for instance, one lap of the pool, he won by 41-hundredths of a second. For those unfamiliar with swim racing, that’s a lot.
In 2007, the year before Phelps did what he did in Beijing in 2008, Phelps won seven golds at the FINA worlds in Melbourne, Australia.
So if Dressel is on track for seven here, why not eight next year in Tokyo?
Because, beyond the difference in the way the swim schedule sets up at an Olympics and a world championships, Dressel and Phelps swim radically different programs.
Again, fundamentally, this becomes a math problem.
Here’s some quick math to a Dressel path to six golds:
1. 50 free. 2. 100 free. 3.100 fly. 4. 4x1 free relay. 5. 4x1 mixed relay. 6. 4x1 medley.
To get to eight, Dressel would — obviously — have to add two races.
The most logical would be 7. 200 free and 8. 4x2 free relay.
When Phelps tried the 200 free at the 2004 Games in Athens, he finished — third.
Here was the Phelps way (not in chronological order) in 2008, when it all came together:
1. 200 IM. 2. 400 IM. 3. 100 fly. 4. 200 fly. 5. 200 free. 6. 4x1 free relay. 7. 4x2 free relay. 8. 4x1 medley
Let’s say Dressel goes for six. And wins six. Does that make him “less” than Phelps? Than Mark Spitz, winner of seven Olympic golds in 1972?
This is why the hype machine, and all that attends it, is absurd.
Dressel is an amazing talent. Who happens as well to be a genuine young man. See him, for instance, on the medals stand — always with a blue bandana, a last link to Claire McCool, a cherished high school math teacher who died in 2017 of breast cancer. He is fiercely devoted to his country.. And to hard work, practice and the sport: “It’s just about getting better every day,” he said late Saturday in speaking to reporters after collecting three golds, in the process doing something Phelps never did — racking up three championship swims in one night.
In short order, Dressel won the 50 free, in a championship-record 21.04 seconds. All of 34 minutes later, he won the 100 fly, in 49.66.
Just a quick pause before moving forward. To go 49.66 in the 100 fly a half-hour or so after 21.04 in the 50 free is — outrageous.
Back to the three-race sequence.
Dressel finished the night by leading off the mixed 4x1 relay in 47.34, the Americans winning in a world-record 3:19.4. Dressel’s time was three-hundredths faster than Kyle Chalmers of Australia, the Rio 2016 open 100 gold medalist, the same guy he had beaten earlier in the week here in the 100 in an American-record 46.96, just five-hundredths off the world record.
Meeting with reporters after the final race, you should know, Dressel was ever-so-slightly critical of himself for that 47.34. That time, he noted, would have put him only third if it had been in the open 100 — slower than the 46.96 and 47.08 he and Chalmers been timed in.
Perhaps this is why the hype machine might be dulled, maybe a little bit, when it comes to Caeleb Dressel.
We can hope.
“I will be ready for it next year,” Dressel said late Saturday.
“I have never been one to buy into the hype. it’s really just between me, myself and my coach, and getting ready for next year. Like I said, there’s a lot of parts of my race that I can improve on.
“… I’ve never had a perfect race in my life and I don’t think I will. You can always improve.”