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 It’s so outdated at this point.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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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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