Caeleb Dressel resurfaces at swimming trials after miserable post-Olympic months

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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.

U.S. SWIMMING TRIALS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

“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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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team.

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

FIBA Women's World Cup Basketball
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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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