Caeleb Dressel
AP

Caeleb Dressel an Olympic hopeful after 5-month break from swimming

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On Aug. 7, the second night of competition at the Rio Olympics, eight nations will send four swimmers each to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium deck for the final of the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.

No other event provided such consistent drama over the last four Games.

At Sydney 2000, host Australia edged the U.S. by .19 of a second, after more than three minutes of back-and-forth in a cauldron of green-and-gold fervor. The U.S. had never previously been beaten in that race.

Michael KlimIan Thorpe and Co. celebrated by strumming air guitars, in response to brash American Gary Hall Jr.’s (respectful) prediction that the U.S. would “smash them like guitars.”

At Athens 2004, South Africa reset the world record, while Michael Phelps and the U.S. settled for bronze, keeping Phelps’ hopes of eight Olympic medals alive (Phelps would finish those Games with six gold, two bronze, tying the mark for most medals at a single Olympics).

At Beijing 2008, Jason Lezak overtook France’s Alain Bernard on the anchor leg with the fastest-ever 100-meter swim, giving the U.S. bragging rights again and keeping Phelps’ hopes of eight Olympic gold medals alive (Phelps did win eight gold, breaking Mark Spitz‘s record).

France returned the favor in 2012, with Yannick Agnel overtaking Ryan Lochte on anchor.

Back in 2008, 11-year-old Caeleb Dressel was transfixed by the 4x100m free relay in his northeast Florida home.

“We watched it on my parents’ bed,” said Dressel, the third of four children in a family of swimmers.

Dressel, now a tattooed, GoPro-movie-making, Bible-verse-wearing University of Florida sophomore, could be part of the next edition of swimming’s great race.

He ranked third in the U.S. in the 100m freestyle and second in the 50m free last year, completing a climb after taking five months off from the sport from December 2013 to May 2014.

The makeup of the U.S. 4x100m free relay final quartet is a quadrennial question.

It might be answered June 30, looking at the top four from the Olympic trials individual 100m free final. But likely not until Aug. 7, the day of the race in Rio, in a coaches’ decision following morning preliminary heats.

It seems inevitable that the squad will include Olympic 100m champion Nathan Adrian for a second straight Games and Phelps for a fourth straight. Maybe Lochte, too, with a shot at making up for 2012.

It also appears a newcomer will join the relay final team. Cullen Jones, part of it in 2008 and 2012, ranked No. 33, No. 15 and No. 14 in the U.S. in the 100m free the last three years.

He turns 32 in February and will have to swim at least a half-second faster than his best since the London Games to have a shot at staying on the relay.

The other candidates to join the foursome include veterans:

Josh Schneider (28, primarily a 50m freestyler, who on Dec. 5 posted a personal-best 100m free time, bettered only by Adrian among Americans in 2015)
Jimmy Feigen (26, a 2012 Olympic 4x100m free prelim swimmer who took 100m free silver at the 2013 Worlds and bowed out in the heats at the 2015 Worlds)
Matt Grevers (30, the Olympic 100m backstroke champion, part of the prelim relay at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics who is picking between the 100m free and 200m back as his complementary event)

Also, the 19-year-old Dressel’s peers:

California high school senior Maxime Rooney, 17, and University of Missouri junior Michael Chadwick, 20, who each clocked 48.87 seconds in the 100m free last year. That tied them for fourth in the U.S. behind Adrian (48.31), Schneider (48.76) and Dressel (48.78).

What separates Dressel?

“Every once in a while an athlete like that comes along and is just magical to watch in the water, and he really is,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “He’s just the type of kid that has an incredible feel for the water. He’s very light. He’s got an incredible stroke turnover. And he can do it long course [Olympic 50-meter pools] and short course [NCAA 25-yard pools]. The last time I remember watching somebody like that was [2000 Olympic 50m free champion] Anthony Ervin, when he was younger, about that age. He’s the real deal, no doubt about it.”

Dressel had an unusual path to the University of Florida.

He came up through the respected Bolles Sharks swim club in Jacksonville, Fla., training with Canadian Santo Condorelli (fourth place at the World Championships 100m free in August) and Ryan Murphy (fifth in the 200m back at Worlds).

But unlike Condorelli and Murphy, Dressel did not swim for the private Bolles School, instead choosing the public high school in his hometown of Green Cove Springs in the next county over.

That meant he drove (or was driven) 40 minutes north before dawn to club practice, then back to school and, some afternoons, back to Bolles for a second practice and then home to Green Cove Springs.

“Bolles wanted him from my understanding, but he wanted a normal high school experience,” said his high school coach, Justin Faulkner, who also taught Dressel’s college-level language arts classes. “He’s a goofy kid. Sometimes, kids get weird if they’re pigeon-holed into one sport and that’s all they eat, breathe and sleep.”

Dressel was featured in Sports Illustrated‘s “Faces in the Crowd” in January 2013, broke the national high school 50-yard freestyle record and committed to the University of Florida, billed as “the top-ranked recruit according to all of the major swimming publications,” in a press release.

“He’s like a comet that comes around ever so often, and you have to catch it when you can,” Faulkner said before Dressel began college in 2014, according to the Florida Times-Union.

But it appeared that Dressel burned out following the December 2013 Winter Junior Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. At the meet, Dressel won the 50-yard freestyle on the first day, was briefly hospitalized on the second day due to breathing problems and came back to win the 100-yard freestyle on the third day.

He was forced out of the pool afterward due to deviated septum surgery but as winter turned to spring, he still wasn’t training.

“I just needed a little mental break,” Dressel said, carefully choosing his words. “I had some demons I was fighting at that point.”

His coaches thought he might never come back.

“He had to walk through that wilderness on his own for a while,” said Faulkner, who said he and Dressel had weekly “check-up” discussions.

Then, one day in spring 2014, Bolles club coach Jason Calanog received a phone message from Dressel.

“He actually texted me a picture of a pool,” said Calanog, now a Texas A&M assistant. “His way of letting me know he’s back.”

Dressel couldn’t make it through full practices at first but was nonetheless encouraged.

“I realized why I was in the sport and was able to enjoy it again,” Dressel told Swimming World.

He enrolled at Florida, buoyed by a phone call from Lochte.

“I think I was one of his deciding factors why he got to Florida,” said Lochte, who trained under UF coach Gregg Troy until 2013. “If you want to become the best, you have to go there. Troy will get you to the best.”

Troy got him there. Last March, Dressel won the NCAA 50-yard freestyle title in 18.67 seconds, .01 off Adrian’s American record.

NCAA pools are 25 yards, versus 50 meters in Olympic-sized pools, so Dressel’s Olympic prospects would become clearer at the U.S. Championships in San Antonio in August.

There, Dressel swept the 50m and 100m freestyle titles with times bettered only by Adrian, among Americans, that year up until that point.

Fans could recognize Dressel on the pool deck by the Bible verses penned in Sharpie under his eyes, a mohawk and an elaborate tattoo of an eagle on his left shoulder.

Dressel put a different verse on his cheeks each day, writing backwards looking into a mirror.

“It helps calm me,” said Dressel, who chose Colossians 3:17 and his favorite verse, Isaiah 40:31, at Nationals.

The latter was the inspiration for his shoulder tattoo of an eagle, which he had done right after his five-month break from the sport. This school year, Dressel added an American flag to it.

“I love my country,” he said.

Outside of the pool, Dressel enjoys getaways to 60 acres his family owns, 10 minutes away from their house. He plays foosball, takes an off-road vehicle into the woods and shoots pistols, shotguns and rifles.

“I’m not like a crazy hunter,” Dressel said. “I love the outdoors.”

His personality and his swimming remind Troy of Lochte.

“He’s not afraid to hurt himself to win,” Troy said. “He’s very much like Ryan Lochte, but with more natural speed.”

While Dressel starred at the U.S. Championships in San Antonio in August, the U.S. men struggled at Worlds over in Kazan, Russia. The most glaring failure was a joint-11th-place finish in the heats of the 4x100m free relay, missing the eight-nation final.

The U.S. foursome did not include Adrian, Phelps or Lochte but did have an average age of 29.

“If they’re going to get back in the mix of this 4x100m free relay, it’s going to take guys like Caeleb Dressel,” Gaines said.

How Dressel will handle the pressure of the Olympic trials, let alone the Rio Games, this summer is unknown, but he does have experience and the genes — his father swam collegiately in Delaware, his older sister did so for Florida State and his younger sister is committed to Florida.

Dressel reached the the 2012 Olympic trials, finishing 145th in the 50m free, 152nd in the 100m free, 121st in the 200m free and 100m butterfly and 100th in the 200m individual medley at age 15.

One year later, Dressel made the eight-man final of the U.S. Championships 100m free.

“He loves to race and rise to the occasion,” Troy said. “He’s young enough and fresh enough that we’re not putting any expectations on what he could do.”

MORE: Ledecky breaks WR; Phelps beats Lochte in Austin

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dressel is a middle child.

2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

FIVB
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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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