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

Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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