When Caeleb Dressel won seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships, the outlier was the 50m butterfly, where he was fourth. Dressel, after a difficult 2018 in and out of the pool, won the 50m fly on Monday, putting a record eight gold medals in play this week.
Dressel dominated in the non-Olympic event 22.35 seconds, the second-fastest time in history and an American record. The margin of victory was vast for a one-length race — .35 of a second.
“I’m not here to count medals,” Dressel said. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and forget about this.”
Dressel now has two golds in his first two events after leading off the U.S. 4x100m freestyle on Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea. He is a defending world champion in six remaining events — 50m and 100m freestyle (perhaps his biggest question mark against Rio gold medalist Kyle Chalmers) and the 100m butterfly, plus three more relays. He could be on the 4x200m free, too, giving him nine events.
Two of those relays are mixed-gender events that weren’t on the program when Michael Phelps set records of seven golds at the 2007 World Championships and eight at the 2008 Olympics. Phelps has said he’s not a fan of mixed-gender relays, but in 2017 he refused to say that Dressel’s feat was anything less than his own.
“You can’t take anything away from winning seven gold medals, right?” Phelps said then. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a relay or an individual event.”
If Dressel had it his way, the tattooed Floridian would have zero fanfare accompanying his recent rise.
“Being in the spotlight is something that’s important in the sport. It is inevitable,” Dressel said last week. “But if it were up to me, it would just be me, [coach Gregg Troy], no media stuff and just trying to go best times, really.”
In 2014, he quit the sport for five months under the expectation of being the nation’s top prep swimmer. He ultimately decided to join the University of Florida team and rewrote the NCAA record book before his breakout 2017 Worlds. Turning pro in 2018 brought more off-deck commitments, and Dressel struggled in last summer’s two major meets, winning two of seven individual events.
“It might send you to those dark places every once in a while, but it will test yourself,” said Dressel, who had perhaps the most pressure-packed role of any U.S. swimmer in Rio, leading off the 4x100m free final in his very first Olympic splash. “I like that from the sport.”
Dressel keeps grounded with interests outside the sport. He plays the drums, has one chapter left of his third time reading “Zen in the Martial Arts” and plans to go on a cruise with other swimmers later this summer.
“I really only have one little block of vacation time a year, so I like to spend it with my boys,” he said. “During the meet, it can be tricky, you can get caught up in your thoughts. I try to hang out with people when I can. I don’t want to be alone too much.”
Dressel gets Tuesday off. The headliner will be Katie Ledecky, slated for the 1500m freestyle final, followed about an hour later by a 200m free semifinal. Ledecky was relegated to silver in Sunday’s 400m free by 18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who is also in the 200m.
Also Tuesday, Lilly King will take on Russian rival Yuliya Efimova for the first of three events this week in the 100m breast, King’s trademark distance. The men’s 100m backstroke final features the last two Olympic champions, Americans Ryan Murphy and Matt Grevers.
In other events Monday, Brit Adam Peaty three-peated in the 100m breast, clocking 57.14 seconds one day after lowering his world record to 56.88 in the semifinals. Peaty, the 24-year-old Olympic champion, owns the 17 fastest times in history and is the only man to break not only 57 seconds, but also 58 seconds.
Peaty led a British one-two with James Wilby, who was 1.32 seconds back. China’s Yan Zibei grabbed bronze, while American Andrew Wilson was sixth.
Katinka Hosszu became the first woman to win four straight world titles in one event, taking the 200m individual medley in 2:07.53. Ye Shiwen, the eye-popping 2012 Olympic champion at age 16, took silver, 1.07 seconds behind. American Melanie Margalis was fourth, .21 behind bronze medalist Sydney Pickrem of Canada.
Canadian Maggie MacNeil, a rising Michigan sophomore, upset world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom in the 100m butterfly. MacNeil stormed past Sjostrom in the last 25 meters to win in 55.83, topping Sjostrom by .39. American Kelsi Dalhia was sixth, two years after taking bronze.
“[MacNeil] told me straight after, the first thing she said was, I look up to you very much,” said Sjostrom, who earned her first world title in 2009 at age 15.
Sjostrom owns the 10 fastest times in history and won the last three world titles and the Rio Olympics. MacNeil chopped .69 off her personal best, jumping from the 10th-fastest woman in history to No. 2 ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Dana Vollmer.
“I can’t really hold the last 50,” Sjostrom said. “I’m actually exhausted in the end. I’m absolutely surprised I went 56.22 with how I finished.”
NBC Olympic researchers Alex Azzi and Megan Soisson contributed to this report from Gwangju.
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