Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel not chasing Michael Phelps record 8 gold medals

Leave a comment

ATLANTA (AP) — In the post-Michael Phelps world, Caeleb Dressel fits snugly into the successor’s slot.

Coming off two dynamic performances at the world swimming championships, Dressel figures to be one of the biggest stars at the Tokyo Games.

Yet he is reticent to step into the spotlight. He puts up his guard when it comes to his personal life. He really has no desire to be compared to the winningest athlete in Olympic history.

“I don’t want to say I just brush it off, because I know it’s going to be inevitable,” Dressel said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But that’s not why I’m in this sport. … It’s not to beat Michael. It’s not to go faster than Michael.”

Sitting across the table from Dressel at a bustling sandwich shop near Emory University, it doesn’t take long to recognize that he runs a bit deeper than many athletes.

“A thinker” is how his coach, Gregg Troy, describes him.

Dressel is an avid reader. His infrequent posts on social media are often quoted from whatever book has his attention at the moment.

“I can get the physical exercise done with practice and staying in shape,” he said. “But you’ve got to sharpen the mental side. I like to learn.”

Recently, he read Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.”

“The good thing about true perseverance is that it can’t be stopped by anything besides death,” Dressel tweeted.

Another recommendation from Dressel’s book club is “The Wright Brothers,” a 2015 work by historian David McCullough chronicling the life and times of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Dressel was taken with these lines: “All were extremely proud of the brothers, not because that was the fashion of the moment, but because of their grit, persistence, and their loyalty to conviction. Above all because of their sterling American quality of compelling success.”

That’s a quality Dressel knows something about.

At the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, he joined Phelps and Mark Spitz as the only swimmers to win seven gold medals at a major international meet.

This summer in South Korea, Dressel picked off six golds and two silvers — making him and Phelps the only swimmers to claim eight medals at either the Olympics or the worlds. Most impressively, Dressel won three titles in a single night.

“He’s such a dynamic swimmer,” said Bob Bowman, who was Phelps’ coach throughout his career and now leads the swimming program at Arizona State. “The way he jumps off the block. The race is over when he hits the water. He’s so strong. I think of power when I see him swim.”

Now, as Tokyo approaches, Dressel is 23 years old.

The same age as Phelps heading into the 2008 Beijing Games.

But Dressel quickly shoots down any thought of making a run at Phelps’ most iconic record — those eight gold medals.

Two of Dressel’s eight events in Gwangju (50m butterfly and 4x100m mixed-gender freestyle relay) aren’t on the Olympic program.

He’s pondering whether to swim the 200m free at the U.S. trials, in hopes of putting up a time that would earn consideration for a spot on the 4x200m free relay. But it looks like seven events is the absolute ceiling he’ll consider for Tokyo.

Dressel shrugs off speculation that he might attempt the 200m individual medley, saying it just doesn’t work out schedule-wise.

So Phelps’ record is safe.

Not that it’s ever been on Dressel’s radar.

“It’s not about Michael for me,” he said. “It never has been.”

The third of four children, Dressel grew up in Green Cove Springs, Fla., a community just south of Jacksonville along the St. Johns River. He played a variety of sports, including football, track and soccer, but swimming was his destiny.

“To put it simply, this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said “I don’t know if it chose me or I chose it. But I couldn’t walk away from it, even at the points where I didn’t enjoy it.”

There were certainly times when he struggled to find joy in the sport — most notably during his senior year of high school, when he was one of the nation’s top swimming prospects but shockingly decided to drop out for about six months.

Dressel clams up when asked about that time in his life.

“I genuinely missed it,” is about all he’ll say. “I’ve sort of beat around the bush with my answers. Maybe one day I’ll actually come out and give the full story. But right now, I’m not ready.”

He returned to swimming, of course, with a scholarship to compete right down the road at the University of Florida. That’s where he hooked up with Troy, the school’s longtime coach, and began a partnership that would produce some staggering returns.

Dressel earned his first Olympic berth in 2016 and led off the gold medal-winning 4x100m free relay team that also included Phelps, who retired for good after Rio with 23 gold medals.

Dressel earned a second gold by swimming the preliminaries of the 4x100m medley relay. In his only individual event, he finished sixth in the 100m free.

The last two world championships gave Dressel a chance to expand his horizons.

He’s gotten a taste of what it means to be one of the faces of U.S. swimming.

“He dealt with the pressure of being the star,” Troy said. “Now, I think, he’s kind of the complete package.”

While Dressel doesn’t seem to care much about medals, there is one possession that he’s never without at the biggest meets — a blue and black bandanna imprinted with images of cows.

It belonged to Claire McCool, one of his math teachers at Clay High School. She died in 2017 after a two-year battle with breast cancer.

The bandanna was one of several she wore while undergoing treatment. Her children each got one. Her husband, Mike, wanted Dressel to have one, too.

“It’s just something special that I get to hold on to that represents her, something physical,” he said. “I needed something physical. I’m glad I got the bandanna.”

But, like that time when he quit swimming, Dressel prefers to keep his bond with McCool close to the vest.

“I’d rather not speak too long on Mrs. McCool, if that’s all right,” he said. “Her classroom was a safe haven. I can’t tell you how many classes I skipped because I was hanging out in her classroom.”

While Dressel’s Wikipedia page says he graduated from Florida, he conceded that he’s still about 15 hours short of completing his degree in resources and conservation.

As his swimming career ramped up, he wasn’t able to finish his last few classes.

That gap in his resume gnaws at him.

“I want to have a diploma to hang on my wall,” he said. “Even if I don’t use it, I can say I graduated from UF.”

He’s got far too much on his plate at the moment to take any classes, though the trappings of stardom require Dressel to do things that aren’t exactly in his comfort zone.

Troy, whose stable of swimmers includes attention-craving Ryan Lochte, noted that Dressel takes a totally different approach away from the pool.

“Ryan loves the publicity and looks forward to it,” Troy said. “Caeleb could do without it.”

When Dressel is required to do a whirlwind promotional tour on behalf of a sponsor, like the one last month for Toyota ahead of the U.S. Open in Atlanta, it’s very apparent he would rather be somewhere else.

“I don’t know if you’ll really get to know me unless you’re close to me,” he said. “If it was up to me, it would be me, Coach Troy and the water.”

Yet Dressel recognizes this comes with the territory when you’re getting mentioned in the same breath as swimmers such as Phelps and Spitz.

The spotlight in Tokyo will be bright, that’s for sure.

But Dressel plans to keep his head down. He’ll be focused on those black lines at the bottom of the pool.

That’s when he feels most at peace.

“I’m not doing this for money, I’m not doing this for fame,” Dressel said. “For me, it’s how far can I push this? How fast can I go?”

BEST OF 2010s: Summer Olympians | Winter Olympians | Teams

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension