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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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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