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