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On Caeleb Dressel’s mind: Not gold medals, but a dark fantasy

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NEW YORK — Caeleb Dressel, fresh off a six-gold-medal effort at the world championships, sat down with OlympicTalk for a Q&A reflecting on his previous Olympic experience and looking forward to the 2020 Tokyo Games. Lightly edited for clarity …

OlympicTalk: Everybody is talking about what happened at worlds, but let’s start with the Rio Olympics. You might have had the most pressure-packed debut swim in Olympic history, leading off the 4x100m freestyle final in Rio with a personal-best time. The vast majority of swimmers start with a preliminary heat. Did you feel the weight of that moment, given the recent history of that relay?

Dressel: No. It wasn’t until after I swam that somebody told me, geez, you did so well for it being such a spotlight event. I didn’t think anything of it until people started mentioning it. I was like, dang, I’m glad you all didn’t say anything before I stepped onto the block. But it was just another race for me. With the London Olympics, France out-touching us. And then the whole thing with Beijing, everyone knows what happened there. I guess there was a little bit of pressure that comes with it.

OlympicTalk: What was your favorite part of your first Olympic experience outside of the competition?

Dressel: We were in the athletes’ village, and I had a few other roommates. A lot of us, it was our first Olympics. Just being able to share those experiences away from the pool, messing around, playing games in the little living room we had.

OlympicTalk: Who were your roommates, and what games did you play?

Dressel: Blake Pieroni, Ryan Held, and, I think, Jack Conger and Townley Haas. We played Fun Run on the phone. It’s so outdated at this point. You literally press one button the whole game. I think we had some card games every now and then.

OlympicTalk: It’s funny that you say you didn’t realize the enormity of your first Olympic swim. Since now every other sentence people mention you is about seven or eight gold medals, records, etc. Do you wish you could go back to what it was like, at least in a pressure sense, three years ago?

Dressel: No, I wouldn’t want to change anything. If the spotlight wants to be on me, it’s totally fine. At the end of the day, it’s really just my goals, my dreams, what I feel like I’m capable of doing and shutting out anybody else who thinks different than that or wants to add onto that.

OlympicTalk: What are your goals and dreams, then? Apart from what everybody else is saying.

Dressel: Well, it’s not really about counting medals for me. It’s just about getting better every day. Not just in the water, but life in general. I know that’s such a broad thing, but it’s really just becoming a better person every day. Immersing myself in new knowledge through books, learning from swimming, putting stuff in my day-to-day life. It’s tough. I haven’t conquered my mind in any way, shape or form, but I feel like I am in a much better place now than three years ago.

OlympicTalk: You’ve mentioned specific books, from “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” that inspired your daily ice baths, to “Zen in the Martial Arts,” which you read before worlds. Anything else you’re reading?

Dressel: I just started one, “A Reaper Heretic.” It’s a dark fantasy. My friend from high school wrote the book, got it published and it’s on Amazon.

OlympicTalk: You said you read “Zen in the Martial Arts” three or four times.

Dressel: I read it in high school before junior worlds and in 2017 before world championships. I read it again before world championships in 2019. So I need to start keeping that a tradition. It’s crazy. I have every page pretty much highlighted. How I read my books is if I find something good, I’ll put the page number in the front of the book. The whole front of the book is like every page number. It’s very simple stuff. Most of these books, they are well-thought-out and very original ideas, but it’s very simple stuff you can apply to your day-to-day life. It goes into the history of it, and it’s really about the mindset.

OlympicTalk: Back to the topic of the moment. Do you want to expand your program in the next year, possibly get to eight Olympic events?

Dressel: I would not want to limit myself in any way, but I also don’t want to just sign up or try to do a bunch of different events and then just completely overdo it. Worlds is tricky, because one of the days I have a triple. I would have loved to be on the 800m free relay at worlds, but that’s two triple days back to back at night, and then I have the morning swims. You have to know your body in the sense that it is going to make you tired.

But for next year, the 200m free is something I would like to dabble with. I dabbled with it this year a little bit. I’m not sure. I’m not sure what I would want to add. I’ll stick to the basics. Me and [coach Gregg] Troy have a plan, a training regimen that we are confident is going to work if we do want to expand to different events.

OlympicTalk: Have you seen the Olympic schedule?

Dressel: No, I have not. Troy knows it like the back of his hand.

OlympicTalk: It looks more favorable than worlds. Whether or not you add the 200m free and the 4x200m free, you would only have one triple of all the finals sessions — a 50m free semifinal, 100m butterfly final and mixed-gender relay.

OlympicTalk: It’s really just the finals that get you. I know you have to make it into a big-boy heat in the semis, but it just carries a little bit less with it. It sounds all right.

OlympicTalk: Does the magical eight Olympic gold medals mean anything to you?

Dressel: I’m not in this sport to beat out one guy. I know the comparisons are going to be made, but for me, it’s all from within what I feel like I am capable of doing. It’s not to beat one guy. I don’t know if that’s disappointing to a lot of people, but it’s not why I’m in it. I consider him a better, more talented swimmer than I am. I’m trying to take what skill set I have and really max that out.

I don’t enjoy the time during worlds. The meet is not fun itself. Having to step up on those blocks and racing is fun. Winning, yes, it’s very fun. But the focus it takes, the physical abuse you take just from the meet itself. When it’s after, yeah, I’m very proud of myself for doing it, kind of watching the year come together. But during the actual thing, the amount of focus, it’s really not that much fun. For me, it’s not counting medals.

OlympicTalk: We’ve talked to you before about the bandana and Ms. McCool, but you also kneel down and pray next to the block before races. Are you saying the same thing every time?

Dressel: It’s whatever is on my mind. It’s completely random. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to get up and race. I’m not asking to win or anything. God doesn’t play favorites like that. Just another opportunity to race, do what I love to do. Depending on how I feel, I’ll say, I know this is going to hurt really, really bad. So just ask for strength maybe those last 10 meters.

OlympicTalk: What was Troy’s post-mortem on worlds?

Dressel: This year was not an easy year. Every year is so different. I hit a bad rut just with my training. I was bad for, I want to say, two or three months. I hit a rut where I just wasn’t putting up good times. I get angry with myself when I’m not putting up good times. For me, that’s a decline of self-improvement. Which I know it’s not because you can’t be on every single day. But this year was really tough. With Troy, there was a lot of self-doubt even leading up to the meet because you’re not putting up times in practice. I’m supposed to be going crazy fast times. It can be very frustrating in this sport. Troy kept telling me, this is where the experience comes in. He’s seen it before. For me, I act like it’s a new thing every year, but I do drop down a little bit before ramping back up. He just kept calming me down.

To see it come together at the end, be able to share that with Troy. He’s so funny. He just thanks me. He goes, thanks for having me along. It’s like, hey, you realize this is why I’m working with you. I need you. I need you to be my coach. He was proud of me. There’s nothing better than hearing your coach say he’s proud of you. And Troy doesn’t hand out compliments all the time, so when he does say them, you know it’s something special.

I’ve watched my sister swim, and it sucks because you are just out of control of everything. So, for Troy to have to watch all of my races and not have any control of anything, it’s very nerve-racking. I think it’s worse to be a spectator than to actually be the one performing. Troy’s a tough one, but I know he gets nervous.

MORE: Ryan Lochte wins national title in return from suspension

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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