Caeleb Dressel
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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

With all the success Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte are having at World Trials so far, we love this blast from the past (Thanks to Lise B. You rock!)

Posted by Florida Swim Network on Thursday, June 27, 2013

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

Too early to say whether virus threatens Olympics, WHO says

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GENEVA (AP) — Despite a virus outbreak spreading from China, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday it’s much too soon to say whether the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being cancelled or moved.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.

The U.N. agency’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, said Tuesday the sporting event was “way too far” away to consider giving advice that would affect Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics.

“We are not there to make a decision for that,” Ryan told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a news conference at WHO headquarters.

Geneva-based WHO has been in regular contact with the IOC in nearby Lausanne since the virus known as COVID-19 emerged in December.

“We don’t give them judgments,” Ryan said. “We assist them with their risk assessment. We will be working closely with them in the coming weeks and months.”

The death toll in mainland China due to the virus rose to almost 1,900 on Tuesday, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has caused numerous sports events in China to be canceled, postponed, or moved, including qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

Chinese athletes and teams have also been unable to travel for some competitions. China sent a team of more than 400 athletes to the Rio Olympics. It won 70 medals, including 26 gold, to place second in total medal standings.

Around 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials from more than 200 national teams are expected in Japan for the Olympics.

Japan has experienced the most significant outbreak of the virus outside of China, on the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in quarantine at Yokohama in Tokyo Bay.

During a 14-day isolation that ends Wednesday, 542 cases have been identified among more than 3,700 passengers and crew.

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For Mike Eruzione, Al Michaels, it’s no miracle that 1980 Olympics endure

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Mike Eruzione has been reminded on a daily basis about the Miracle on Ice for nearly four decades. While playing celebrity golf tournaments. At speaking engagements. Or that time he auctioned his jersey and stick from the Soviet game to a 9-year-old boy named Seven.

Eruzione, now 65, likes to open conversations with one anecdote about meeting strangers, which he repeated in a call with reporters last week.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, it’s depending on their age — I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember where I was when we won,” Eruzione said. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’

“But people felt a part of it. … It’s nice to know that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team owns a last name that means “eruption” in Italian. Eruzione scored the decisive goal in the U.S.’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union en route to a shock gold medal during the Cold War in Lake Placid, N.Y.

NBCSN airs a 30-minute special marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET. It will feature a conversation between Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, the play-by-play voice of the game dubbed by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Eruzione has grandchildren now. Three of them skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is,” Eruzione said of the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, “but they know about the Miracle.”

All credit to the U.S. Olympic team of 20 players between ages 19 and 25, back when the NHL did not participate in the Olympics. The Soviets were essentially a team of professionals. The nation won the previous four Olympics and throttled the U.S. 10-3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Enter Michaels, calling hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games alongside Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Michaels, then 35, said he was assigned the sport because he had the most hockey experience on the ABC Olympic talent roster — one game. He called the 1972 Olympic hockey final by himself.

Feb. 22, 1980: As the U.S. led the Soviet Union 4-3 and the final seconds ticked down, one word came to mind: miraculous.

“It got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went,” Michaels said.

Eruzione said he didn’t learn of Michaels’ call — “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” — until two weeks after the Olympics. He didn’t watch the game broadcast until years later.

“I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said, noting he preferred Michaels’ call in the final comeback win over Finland to clinch the gold: “This impossible dream comes true.”

Team members since gathered often — to light the 2002 Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City, for fantasy camps in Lake Placid and for coach Herb Brooks‘ 2003 funeral. Eighteen of the 20 players are scheduled to reunite this weekend in Las Vegas.

Absent will be Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. And Bob Suter, who died in 2014 of a heart attack at age 57.

It was Suter’s death that motivated Eruzione and others to commemorate the 35th anniversary together in Lake Placid. It was believed to be the first time all living players were together in Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Games.

Eruzione said that the 2004 film “Miracle” introduced the team to a new generation. Now at many of his speeches, the majority of Eruzione’s audience was born after 1980.

“I’ll say, how many people watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ and almost everybody raises their hand,” he said. “So I think what the movie did for us as a team was kind of rejuvenated our team as far as people knowing who we were and what we are and what we were about.”

NFL coaches set up “Miracle” viewings for their teams before games. Michael Phelps watched it for motivation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Phelps told relay teammates, “This is our time,” before they beat rival Australia. An ode to Brooks’ pregame speech before the Soviet game.

Michaels, whose 13-year-old grandson won an October hockey tournament in Lake Placid, said he watched “Miracle” last week for the first time in about a decade. He helped do voiceovers in production more than 15 years ago, though the original Lake Placid audio was used for his signature call.

“The great thing is, in a way, when you watch it back or you watch highlights back, you almost become like in the third person, like somebody else is doing this and announcing this game,” Michaels said. “I exult the way I think most of the country did and do when they see highlights of it. So it’s kind of an out-of-body experience in a way, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

After Eruzione shared his tale of strangers’ memories, Michaels added one of his own.

“One of my favorite stories is Mike Eruzione calling me maybe eight to 10 years ago and saying, ‘The greatest thing about this is every time I come home and maybe I’m a little down, I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll put the tape in,'” Michaels said. “‘Every time I shoot, the puck goes in. It will forever.'”

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