When Caeleb Dressel landed in the U.S. after the Olympics last summer, his initial reflection wasn’t on any of the history that he made in Tokyo. The conviction was that he didn’t hit goal times that he had set for himself in his races.
“That’s not fair to myself,” Dressel told Graham Bensinger two weeks ago at a broadcast shoot at his North Central Florida home. “I just won five gold medals on the biggest world stage in sports, and I’m thinking about how I wish I would have gone faster in certain events.”
So began a break between major competition that Dressel, speaking this week at his first big meet since Tokyo, called “a very interesting year.” At least at times.
Dressel has so far delivered at the world championships trials in Greensboro, N.C., winning the 100m freestyle (Tuesday) and 50m and 100m butterflies (Wednesday, Thursday) in the fastest times in the world this year. He has one race left, the 50m free on Saturday, to set up a potential eight-event schedule at June’s worlds in Budapest when including relays.
“The goal this year: be happy,” Dressel said. “I think we’ve got a good grasp on that.”
He didn’t last fall.
Dressel dived right back into competition after the Olympics. He contested the International Swimming League in late August, four weeks after his final splash at an exhausting Games.
Dressel wasn’t expected to race a full ISL season, but he suddenly withdrew In the middle of the third of four regular-season competitions in a three-week stretch, all in Naples, Italy, His team general manager said he “was not feeling well.”
“I felt so lost,” Dressel told Bensinger two weeks ago. “I wanted to get away from the water, but that’s also one of my safe places.
“It was a pretty miserable couple of months.”
Seven years earlier, Dressel burned out from the sport as a prized high school recruit. He took five months off then, at times holed up in his room with the blinds shut, and posted sticky notes on his walls reading, “Swimming doesn’t define me,” his mom said.
The Tokyo Olympic build-up, expectations and accompanying pressure, adding an extra year due to the pandemic postponement, took its toll. He needed a break last fall.
“It was his senior year [of high school] on steroids,” Gregg Troy, Dressel’s coach at the University of Florida and as a pro through Tokyo, told Bensinger. “Usually you’re trying to motivate someone to be better than what they think they can be, and now you’ve got a guy that’s as good or better than anyone, and he never thinks it’s good enough.”
During his time off in October, Dressel shared that he spent 14 hours getting the outline of a waist-to-ankle right leg tattoo, complementing his left arm sleeve. On the drive home, he helped a stranger jump start her car in the middle of the night at a rest stop.
In November, Dressel announced a coaching change. He was staying in Gainesville — he never plans to leave — but amicably left Troy, who was downshifting in his early 70s, for the current UF college team coaches, Anthony Nesty and Steve Jungbluth.
Dressel, after training with a professional group including Ryan Lochte, was back with teenagers who don’t necessarily need an Olympics as motivation.
“I wanted to be able to look at the freshman and sophomore kid next to me [and say], ‘Hey, try this. Good job on that,'” Dressel told Bensinger. “I genuinely feel like an in-water coach, and it’s awesome.”
Dressel said he took about two months off before going “all-in” with Nesty and Jungbluth in mid-December. Still, it wasn’t easy.
His schedule could still be demanding. On one night in December, he gave award acceptance speeches at both the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year and USA Swimming’s Golden Goggles, separated by 25 miles in South Florida.
He wept on Christmas.
“I still hadn’t had my footing too well back into training and feeling like my life was back in order,” he said.
Dressel, like so many, got sick in January. Yet by the end of that month, he recorded personal-best efforts in swim practice and in the weight room. He largely credited the base that he built up working with Troy in the last Olympic cycle, which he expects to help carry him much further in the two years until the Paris Games.
He’s also familiar with Nesty and Jungbluth, who were on the staff when Troy was the UF head coach in Dressel’s college years. Bobby Finke, the Olympic 800m and 1500m free gold medalist, said that Nesty, the 1988 Olympic 100m fly gold medalist for Suriname, has worked a lot with Dressel on his butterfly stroke.
“We’re not rewriting any books here, right?” Dressel said this week. “We’re just, you know, writing maybe a new chapter here and there.”
Dressel has been known to gift his medals to important people in his life. He gave his first individual Olympic gold to Troy. More medals are surely coming in Budapest, and probably Paris and beyond.
His ideal swimming scenario is taking away all the clanging, dangling awards, cameras and competitors and just stroking away like in practice. But there’s also that clock and goal times that keep him hungry.
“That’s what makes me great, but I think that can also be detrimental if I want to have longevity in this sport,” he said of the focus that felled him after Tokyo. “There has to be a balance.”
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