Caeleb Dressel not chasing Michael Phelps record 8 gold medals

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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?”

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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