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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