For Caeleb Dressel, the comparisons began in earnest two years ago when he matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a single world championships (albeit two were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program when Phelps swam).
They will likely spread at this summer’s worlds, which begin Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea (TV schedule here). And they likely won’t dissipate through the next year and the Tokyo Olympics.
For as Dressel endured new obstacles in and out of the pool last summer, winning two of seven individual races at the two major 2018 meets, he came back this May and June with his fastest times since 2017 Worlds.
“I personally think he’s going to break three world records,” next week, NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “I think he’s going to break two for sure, 50m and 100m freestyle. The only one that’s doubtful, to me, would be the 100m fly.”
Dressel, the former prep prodigy who left the sport for five months before joining the University of Florida team in 2014, is expected to swim no less than the same program next week that he did in 2017.
That would mean eight races — the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies, the 4x100m free, 4x100m medley and two mixed-gender relays. Two years ago, Dressel won seven of eight, surprisingly taking fourth in the 50m fly (which is not on the Olympic program).
His coach in Gainesville, Gregg Troy, did not rule out adding a ninth event as part of the 4x200m free. However, that would likely give Dressel three swims in one session next Friday and next Saturday, something Phelps never did in his prime when contesting eight events at the Olympics and worlds.
The 2020 question is whether Dressel will try to swim a Phelpsian eight events in Toyko. With no 50m fly and only one mixed-gender relay on the Olympic program, he must add two events to get to eight, perhaps the 200m free and 4x200m free relay.
“I’m not too sure,” Dressel said. “I just want to stay focused on this year. I’ve got the biggest meet of my year coming up in less than a week. I’ll get through this meet, and then me and Troy, we’ll start looking forward next year and maybe add some new events. But I’m not too sure at the moment.”
Dressel turned pro last spring after an unprecedented NCAA career, where his routine included carrying a blue bandana in his mouth on the pool deck. The demands on his time were new, from choosing an agent to signing with a swimwear company.
Troy, who coached Ryan Lochte in his prime to overtake Phelps as the world’s best swimmer in 2011, said he may have overtrained Dressel before last summer’s nationals and Pan Pacific Championships.
After Pan Pacs, Dressel revealed that an earlier motorcycle incident where he was forced off the road by another motorist, but didn’t suffer serious injury, maybe interfered with training.
Now, Dressel chalks that summer to uncharacteristically poor swimming at the wrong time. “I can put as many excuses as I want on that, but that’s really just what it was,” he said. “I mean, it happens to athletes all over the world.
“I’m glad it happened when it did. It can mess with you. It can turn into a downward spiral of self-doubt if you don’t just pick and choose what you want to learn from bad experiences like that. I don’t take it as all too negative. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen again. Just a bad meet. Move on from it.”
Troy went further, noting the scrutiny on Dressel. Phelps is retired, Lochte suspended (and, at age 34, staving off Father Time), creating an opening for a male U.S. swim star to pair with Katie Ledecky. In 2017, Dressel became that alpha.
“It’s one thing being the guy coming up. It’s another thing being the guy that’s hunted,” Troy said this week. “He’s a little more mature to handle all the outside factors that we had to deal with last summer.”
In 2017, Dressel’s winning times in the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly were a combined .56 shy of three world records. This year, he’s ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world in those events.
His 2019 times are a combined .64 faster than his best pre-worlds times in 2017, which is why some believe he’s in for a special week in South Korea. But not everyone buys that logic.
“The meets leading up to it don’t really mean too much,” Dressel demurred.
Dressel didn’t have to peak this year for an NCAA Championships or a nationals (the world team was decided last summer) like in 2017. He had the luxury of putting all his focus the last several months on Gwangju.
“My gut feeling,” Gaines said, “I think he’s going to destroy ’em.”
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