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TOKYO — Caeleb Dressel has been known to flex his unparalleled athleticism around the pool, but he’s notably scaled back some of his trademark rituals this week. No vertical leaps behind the starting blocks. No vaulting himself out of the water and onto the deck, landing on his feet.
If the world’s fastest swimmer and his full sleeve of tattoos can be understated, Dressel has done it. “Trying to conserve as much energy as I can,” the American sprint sensation explained Friday. “I haven’t even jumped out of the pool yet; I’ve been taking the ladder. Every time I can get a little edge, I’ll take it.”
Dressel was conserving energy for days like Saturday, when the physical investment was going to be at its highest. Across an ambitious 110 minutes that ranged from the brilliant to the bizarre, he swam three races. The results: a world record and gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly; a second blazing performance that advanced him to the 50 freestyle final as the top seed; then the hopeless task of trying to salvage a failed mixed-medley relay.
“I wouldn’t want that every day,” Dressel said of the single-session triple, “but I can handle it for a day or two.”
Sunday, the last day of swimming, will require him to squeeze the lemon dry. Dressel has his final two races of these Olympic Games—his 11th and 12th trips to the blocks this meet, counting earlier rounds of races—chasing gold medals Nos. 4 and 5. Neither will come easy, and both will come with the weight of history and expectation attached.
If he wins the 50, Dressel will become just the third U.S. male swimmer to capture three individual gold medals in one Olympics. The other two: Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, the most elite company possible. (Among the other American male Olympians who have accomplished that feat: Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis.)
If he wins the 50 and the American men’s medley relay triumphs to gain a measure of redemption in a meet rife with relay disappointment, Dressel will have authored one of the great swimming performances in Olympic history. But if the medley relay loses, which seems likely given the American struggles in the relays here, it will mark the first time in history that it did not win that event at the Olympic level.
That specter of that possible outcome, plus anchoring a mixed medley unit that finished fifth Saturday and being left off an 800 freestyle relay that failed to medal, would leave Dressel with quite the peaks-and-valleys Olympic experience.
It also will leave him mentally and physically taxed to the max. Dressel has always poured all of himself into a meet, and the more ambitious the program, the bigger the toll. After a six-gold performance at FINA World Championships in South Korea in 2019, he collapsed into the arms of his family. This time around, with his wife, parents and siblings far away in the U.S., he will need his teammates to hold him up—literally and metaphorically.
“I’m just tired,” Dressel said Saturday. “This sport’s really not that easy. Does that mean I can’t swim fast [Sunday]? No. It’s just probably going to be a little more hard-earned.”
The Dressel Triple was one of the more remarkable single sessions in Olympic history—perhaps an unprecedented one. It began with the butterfly, which on paper was the surest of Dressel’s events but brought the most pressure. He felt it.
“This sport was a lot more fun when nobody knew my name,” he said. “I was a little shaky. … I was telling my brain to shut up, it was a little bit annoying. Yeah, I was nervous.”
One reason to be nervous, despite already owning the world record (49.50 seconds) and ranking as the only active swimmer ever to break 50 seconds: He had a legit challenger. Hungarian Kristof Milak would make Dressel earn it. The 200 world-record holder and gold medalist in that event earlier in the week swam the best 100 of his life, making it closer than expected at the end.
Dressel used his unmatched starting speed to gain his customary advantage, powering through the first 50 in 23 seconds flat. But Milak was only .65 behind at the turn, and everyone knew he would be closing with a rush. Milak swims the race much like Phelps, building through the first 50 and then finishing faster than anyone else.
Indeed, the 21-year-old Milak finished faster than anyone in history Saturday—his second 50 was 26.03 seconds, easily eclipsing Phelps’s fastest time of 26.35 in the latter half of a 100 fly. But Dressel finished very well himself, coming home in 26.45, tying his best back half ever. That was good enough to take down his world record by .05, and with slightly better timing at the turn and the finish he could have dropped that another tenth or two.
“That was a really fun race to be a part of,” Dressel said. “It was extremely close. It took a world record to win an Olympic final. I didn’t even die. He just came home really well. He’s going to put me out of a job one day.”
While that may be true if the job is winning the 100 butterfly, Dressel has several other specialties. He won the 100 free in a dramatic duel with Australian Kyle Chalmers earlier this meet. And he has the 50, which he contested a little more than an hour after the butterfly, shrugging off fatigue and cruising through his semifinal in 21.42 seconds.
Then the timetable really became condensed.
Dressel hopped out of the competition pool at 11:20 a.m., Japanese Standard Time, and went directly to the adjacent diving well to warm down. Thirteen minutes later he was out of the water and putting on clothes over his suit, drying his cap in his towel, and then joining his relay teammates in the ready room at 11:42.
Then he was back behind the blocks to swim again, in a race where a questionable relay order left Dressel way too far behind to get the U.S. on the podium. The result was fifth place, a stunning pratfall.
“Fifth place is unacceptable for USA Swimming and we’re aware of that,” Dressel said. “The standard is gold.”
Dressel is talented enough to win gold in other events—he assuredly is the U.S’s best 200 individual medley swimmer (he owns the short-course American record in that) and perhaps its best 200 freestyler as well. The difficulty is cramming more events into his program.
There is only one Phelps, who can take on five individual events plus a full menu of relays. For mere mortals—even freakishly athletic ones like Dressel—there isn’t much wiggle room when you factor in the relay demand. And that demand has never been higher, given the addition of the mixed medley and the current state of American relay options.
If Caeleb Dressel’s value to U.S. swimming in the post-Phelps world wasn’t already evident, his exhausting triple Saturday made it so. Now all he has to do is follow it up with a heroic double Sunday. The vertical jumps and leaps out of the pool can wait; the guy needs all the energy he can muster to finish these Olympics.
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