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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 It’s so outdated at this point.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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Rewind: Australia’s Steven Bradbury gains gold and lasting fame after pileup takes out Apolo Ohno

Steven Bradbury
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Heading into the 2002 Winter Olympics, young American Apolo Ohno was a phenom with a legitimate shot at multiple medals in short-track speedskating.

The 1999 world junior champion and future “Dancing with the Stars” champion had finished first in the World Cup season standings in all three individual disciplines in the 2000-01 season. In the 2001 world championships, he took gold in the relay and the 3,000m (a non-Olympic event), silver in the 1,000m and fourth in the 1,500m.

Australia’s Steven Bradbury was at the other end of his career, enduring all sorts of misfortune in the years that followed — a 1995 accident in which he needed more than 100 stitches after a skate blade sliced his thigh, then a 2000 accident in which he broke two vertebra in his neck. 

The highlights of Bradbury’s career were relay world championships medals — gold in 1991, bronze in 1993, silver in 1994. He and his relay teammates also took Olympic bronze in 1994.

Bradbury barely advanced to one individual final, the 1,000m in 2002. He advanced from the quarterfinal when Canadian favorite Marc Gagnon was disqualified. He advanced from the semifinal when multiple skaters fell.

In the final, Bradbury was matched up against three outstanding skaters, including Ohno and Li Jiajun of China, who won this event and the overall title at the 2001 world championships. Ohno and Li had finished 1-2 in the 1,000m World Cup standings in 2001.

Bradbury couldn’t keep up. The other four skaters were in a pack, making dangerous passes among each other, while Bradbury fell further and further behind.

Those dangerous passes finally caught up to the rest of the field in the final turn. Li bumped into Ohno, which would lead to Li’s disqualification. After the lead pack jockeyed for position through the entire race, all four tumbled to the ice.

Bradbury, the last man standing, crossed the finish line first.

 

From the tangled pile-up, Ohno managed to fling himself, skate-first, across the finish line to take silver. Canada’s Mathieu Turcotte made it across for bronze.

Ohno wasn’t done in Salt Lake City. He won the 1,500m gold after the disqualification of Kim Dong-Sung, a controversial decision that made Ohno the object of South Korean derision.

Less controversially, Ohno won three more individual world championship events from 2005 to 2009, plus two relay golds, and the overall world title in 2008. In the Olympics, he took six more medals, including gold in the 500m in 2006 and silver in the 1,500m in 2010.

Bradbury missed the finals in the other two events in Salt Lake City, but his name lives on in the Urban Dictionary and elsewhere as a synonym for an improbable and even accidental victory. He embraced his unique place in history to carve out a career as a motivational speaker delivering more than 1,000 speeches in 19 countries, according to the International Skating Union and has even seen his win commemorated in Legos.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier form new figure skating pair

Brandon Frazier
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A few weeks after her husband and skating partner, Chris Knierim, stepped away from competitive figure skating, Alexa Scimeca Knierim has a new partner.

Brandon Frazier, who was also looking for someone to form a new pair after longtime partner Haven Denney stepped away from competition, at least temporarily, will join Scimeca Knierim on the ice whenever they’re able to train and compete again.

Frazier is a longtime friend of Chris Knierem. Scimeca Knierim told U.S. Figure Skating’s FanZone that Frazier had played a pivotal role in kindling the Knierem’s off-ice romance.

Denney and Frazier won the U.S. championship in 2017 and finished 20th in the world championships that year. They finished third in their two Grand Prix assignments last fall — Skate America and the Internationaux de France. They were runners-up in the 2019 U.S. championships and fifth this year, when they revived their “Lion King” free skate.

The Denney-Frazier pair took an unusual path to figure skating, starting as roller skaters.

The Knierims won their third U.S. championship in January but handed their slot in the world championships to Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson when Chris Knierim, struggling with his form and depression, decided he was unable to continue beyond the Four Continents Championship. The world championships were later canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.

READ: Resilient Knierims withdraw from world championships

The couple had earned attention for their romance and for their inspirational returns from illness and injury. Their U.S. championship win earlier this year was their third.

Skate America, the first event on the Grand Prix circuit, is scheduled to start Oct. 23 in Las Vegas.

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