Caeleb Dressel, after some drama, shines at swim nationals

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IRVINE, Calif. — Caeleb Dressel had his worst experience in the pool on Wednesday in the four years Gregg Troy has coached him.

“Oh, by far,” Troy said.

Dressel, who tied Michael Phelps‘ record with seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, finished sixth in the 100m freestyle on the first night of the U.S. Championships on Wednesday.

“I started off really rough, there’s no doubt about it,” said Dressel, who went 1.33 seconds slower than when he won the 2017 World title in an American record time. “I was absolutely horrible.”

Dressel was beaten again in the 50m butterfly on Thursday, which put some pressure on the 21-year-old going into the 100m butterfly on Friday.

If Dressel swam poorly in the 100m fly, his hopes of qualifying for the two biggest international meets before the 2020 Olympics would lie solely in Sunday’s fickle splash-and-dash 50m free.

Dressel lined up for Friday night’s final as the fourth seed from the morning preliminary heats. He remembered advice from six-time Olympic medalist breaststroker Brendan Hansen, who stressed Dressel focus not day by day or race by race, but stroke by stroke.

“I know how much was on the line,” Dressel said. “It’s basically setting up the next two years for a race that lasted 50 seconds. I do enjoy that. I didn’t want to crumble under that.”

He didn’t. Dressel won the 100m fly in 50.50 seconds, the fastest time in the world since he won the 2017 World title in 49.86 seconds (just .04 off Michael Phelps‘ world record). Dressel knocked an old Phelps rival, Chad le Clos, off the top of the 2018 world rankings.

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“There’s a lot left in the tank for me,” Dressel said, “as you can see.”

It was a relief for Troy, too. Dressel said the two butted heads after the 100m free.

“We talked about it a lot,” Troy said. “No matter how good you are, there’s always confidence issues. Quite frankly, he’s had four years where nothing bad has happened. … So I think the mere fact of how well he handled it, that’s not chopped liver. That’s a pretty good swim. I think he just learned another skill that’s going to make him that much better.”

Dressel’s sixth-place finish in the 100m free was rendered a footnote by his win Friday.

That’s because Dressel can still enter the 100m free at this year’s major international meet — August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo. Any swimmer that qualifies for Pan Pacs can enter as many events as he or she wants at the meet.

The 2019 Worlds team takes the top two swimmers per individual Olympic event using best times from nationals or Pan Pacs.

“I did what I needed to do, and right now I’m on the [Pan Pacs] team,” Dressel said. “That’s what this meet is for.”

Dressel won the 50m and 100m frees and 100m fly at the 2017 Worlds, along with four relay golds.

It was the international breakout many thought possible for the former jewel recruit out of rural Green Cove Springs, Fla.

Dressel almost didn’t go to college, taking a five-month break from the sport, citing mental demons. He did matriculate to the University of Florida, where he rewrote the NCAA sprint record book. He led off the gold-medal U.S. 4x100m free relay in Rio, eight years after watching Jason Lezak‘s memorable anchor leg from his parents’ bed as an 11-year-old.

The last year brought increased attention for the Phelpsian performance at the world championships and increased time demands turning professional after the NCAA Championships in March.

“I don’t want to say anything has changed, but it definitely affected me more than I know,” Dressel said of finding an agent and signing with Speedo. “It’s a new adventure, as my dad says.”

Nationals continue Saturday, headlined by Katie Ledecky in the 400m freestyle, with coverage on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 10 p.m. ET.

In other events Friday, world champion Chase Kalisz distanced the 400m individual medley field by 1.96 seconds. Kalisz clocked 4:08.25, the fastest time in the world this year (supplanting himself). The race lacked the suspended Ryan Lochte, who was ranked No. 2 in the nation in the event this year before nationals.

“The time wasn’t so great, but that’s not what it’s about,” Kalisz said on Olympic Channel. “It’s about making the team, setting yourself up, getting ready for Tokyo [in August].”

World bronze medalist Kelsi Dahlia similarly cruised in the women’s 100m fly, winning by .68 of a second in 56.83 ahead of Katie McLaughlin.

Ally McHugh upset Olympians Leah Smith and Melanie Margalis to win the women’s 400m IM in 4:34.80, a personal best by 4.87 seconds. The rising Penn State senior ranked sixth in the U.S. this year going into nationals.

Olympic and world 100m breaststroke champion Lilly King edged Molly Hannis in the non-Olympic 50m breast. The world-record holder King clocked 29.82 to Hannis’ 30.07. The 50m breast is swum at worlds but not Pan Pacs.

Ryan Murphy broke a nine-year-old American record in the 50m backstroke, winning in 24.24.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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