Bone Dry: What Caeleb Dressel took away from hiking the Appalachian Trail

Caeleb Dressel
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This past spring, when Caeleb Dressel thought he would be in training, days ahead of the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Games, he instead hiked 10 miles a day for six days on the Appalachian Trail.

“Olympic Games [in 2016] was a great experience, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t a life-changing experience,” Dressel, 24, said in June on “The Ben and Caeleb Show,” a podcast he co-hosts that’s on an indefinite break due to busy schedules. “I feel like I learned a lot more about myself, my family and everything going on around me more on the trail than I did with the Olympic Games.”

Dressel, a Rio Olympic champion on relays, developed into arguably the world’s best individual swimmer in this Olympic cycle. He earned 13 world championships gold medals between the 2017 and 2019 editions.

He was expected to vie for another Olympic team in three individual events, plus up to four relays, with a chance at seven medals this past summer in Japan.

Then, in March, the Olympics were postponed until 2021. Dressel suddenly didn’t have a meet on his calendar for several months.

So he approached his coach in Gainesville, Fla., Gregg Troy.

“I said, I think this is something that I need to do,” said Dressel, whose unique path from prodigy to prizewinner included a five-month mental break from the sport before enrolling at Florida in 2014 to swim for Troy’s Gators. “It’s not necessarily that I wanted to miss practice. I’m a huge nerd when it comes to practice. I hate missing practice. I checked with Troy, and he said, ‘You need to go. You need to go do this. You need to go with your family. You need to go be out in the woods a couple of days.'”

So Dressel joined a family tradition. In past years, his father, Michael, and older siblings, Kaitlyn and Tyler, hiked the A.T.

Dressel, who can swim the length of an Olympic pool in 21.04 seconds, lugged a 30-pound backpack around Tennessee (and possibly into North Carolina). He navigated bear scat and a dead rattlesnake — its fangs visible — with trekking poles. He brought one set of clothes. Kaitlyn wisely packed double food portions for him, though it still wasn’t enough tuna and tortillas.

“I was the biggest baby,” he said in a recent interview. “I just kept complaining about how hungry I was the whole time.”

He also earned the trail name Bone Dry, for being the first to run out of water every day.

“It was truly a life-changing experience, coming back with things I learned on the trail,” he said. “It was a good point to really see where you’re at with nothing going on.”

The beauty: waking up one morning to the sound of twigs breaking. Then shining flashlights to uncover deer all around the campsite.

The solitude: Dressel, who believes true happiness can be found in a two-hour solo car ride, hiked eight to 10 hours a day, portions of it alone.

The reality check: meeting a man who said he was a heroin addict and whose last resort was escaping to the woods. Or the 74-year-old woman with the trail name Turtle, who lugged a 40-pound backpack.

“Things I thought were a problem before I went out there all of a sudden weren’t a problem,” Dressel said, such as concern about posting the right things on social media, running his mouth too much about people behind their backs and complaining about the amount of Zoom calls on his plate.

Dressel came back and threw out non-essential possessions. He resolved to limit phone use, especially before bed. As of early December, Dressel said he stuck to it, deleting the Reddit app and keeping an Instagram time limit of 15 minutes per day.

“I’m at the point now to where I don’t remember where I put my phone because I don’t use it that much,” he said.

Dressel found other adrenaline rushes while going more than seven months between swim meets: jumping out of a plane and visiting hundreds of bees.

He returned to competition this autumn, spending six weeks in a Budapest bubble for the International Swimming League. Dressel broke short-course world records in three events and was league MVP.

He was asked to sum up 2020 as he approaches what will be a life-changing year with an upcoming wedding to Meghan Haila. He mentioned a favorite quote, that he believes one is defined by his or her habits.

“We all know what happened in March,” Dressel said. “It was really up to me to decide, do I want to be a lazy baby and regress backwards, or do I want to take advantage of this situation and look for other outlets outside of swimming, outside the pool to implement into my life and build those habits?

“This is the most I’ve enjoyed the sport of swimming, kind of having it taken away from me, and then being back in it.”

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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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