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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MORE: Mental health on swimmers’ minds at nationals

David Boudia adjusts diving event, goal for world championships

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David Boudia earned diving medals at his last three world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but that was on the platform. He competes on the global stage on the springboard for the first time at worlds this week.

“I don’t have a lot of high hopes,” Boudia, who is still learning the springboard after switching to it in the last year, said in a phone interview from South Korea, where he begins competition Wednesday (TV schedule here). “But I think my biggest goal is to walk away with an Olympic spot.”

An Olympic spot not necessarily for himself, but for the U.S.

Boudia, a 30-year-old father of three, and any other American will clinch 2020 Olympic quota spots by placing in the top 12 in their respective individual events this week. Those spots, and any others earned at later competitions in the next year, will be filled at trials in June in Indianapolis.

NBC Sports analyst Cynthia Potter believes Boudia, who left the sport to sell homes in 2017 and came back and suffered a concussion off the platform in 2018, can meet his goal of making Friday’s 12-man final in Gwangju.

“He would have to dive well, but not better than he’s been diving,” she said. “His springboard is really well-timed, rhythmic, and he’s for a long time known how to go into the water without making a splash.”

But challenging Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists Cao Yuan of China and Jack Laugher of Great Britain, plus defending world champion Xie Siyi of China would be very tough.

Boudia lacks their degrees of difficulty, for now. He hopes to switch out two of his six dives before his first competition of 2020, though he could insert one of them should he make the world final.

“I need a good six months, so from August to December is when we’re kind of really drilling the fundamentals of learning those new dives and getting them perfected,” he said.

Boudia rallied to beat Rio Olympic springboard diver Michael Hixon for the title in May at nationals, where the top two per event earned world berths. But Boudia competed there with about a month of competition dive practice, about half as long as he would prefer.

“Hix and I are going to have a lot of training to do if we want to be even close to cracking that top five,” at worlds, Boudia said in May, according to TeamUSA.org.

Boudia is the lone U.S. diver to earn an individual world medal in an Olympic diving event since 2009.

The U.S. produced breakthroughs at worlds so far. Sarah Bacon became the first American woman to earn a world title since 2005, taking the non-Olympic 1m springboard event. Murphy Bromberg and Katrina Young bagged bronze in synchronized platform, ending a decade-long medal drought in any synchro event.

But Boudia’s goal must be shared among the whole team — as many top-12 finishes individually and top three in synchro events to gobble up Tokyo 2020 quota spots. The U.S. failed to qualify full teams for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

“Getting in the top 12 in the four individual Olympic events is the big deal right now,” Potter said. “Whether you are on the awards stand or not, that would be icing on the cake for a lot of these divers.”

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Anita Wlodarczyk, one of track and field’s most dominant, sidelined

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Poland hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk, the only woman to win the last five combined Olympic and world titles in a track and field event, will not go for a fourth straight world championship this fall.

Wlodarczyk had season-ending, arthroscopic left knee surgery on Monday, according to Polish media citing her coach.

Wlodarczyk, 33, has the top 15 throws on the IAAF’s all-time list, and 27 of the top 29. Her world record of 82.98 meters (scribbled on her leg pre-op) is 11 and a half feet farther the second-best woman in history. She originally took silver at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds but was upgraded to gold after Russian Tatyana Lysenko was stripped for doping.

Wlodarczyk won a reported 42 straight finals between 2014 and 2017, then suffered three losses in 2018 and two so far this year in three lower-level meets before the operation.

Americans DeAnna Price and Brooke Anderson rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year. A U.S. woman has never finished in the top five of an Olympic or world championships hammer throw, which debuted at worlds in 1999 and the Olympics in 2000.

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