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TOKYO — When Caeleb Dressel was a small child, he would painstakingly line up his crayons in precise formation, wanting them all to be the same height. He had a toy fire truck that came with about 30 little plastic cones; when he lost one of the cones, he wanted to get rid of the truck. There was a similar level of despair if he lost a Lego.
“I knew in kindergarten this kid was a perfectionist,” says his mom, Christina, who raised Caeleb and three siblings in Florida with her husband, Mike. “He could be too hard on himself. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’ve got my hands full with this one.’”
Roughly 20 years later, the crayons all line up. The perfectionist has authored a perfect ending to his Tokyo Olympics, rising to a very big occasion by delivering his very best. He is the biggest American hero in Japan so far, leading U.S. Swimming to the triumphant conclusion of a melodramatic meet.
The result: five gold medals, two world records, two more Olympic records, and a seat next to Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz as just the third American male swimmer to win three individual golds in a single Summer Games. The only thing keeping him from a sixth medal was coaching error in relay assignments.
This was the culmination of the 24-year-old Dressel’s evolution into the world’s greatest male swimmer. It was a masterpiece of speed and power, of underwater elegance and surface fury, of fortitude and composure. Frame his body of work here and hang it in the Louvre so he can revisit it in 2024—although, to suit this country boy, it might be better to hang it in a work shed on his farm south of Gainesville.
The young perfectionist grew into a perfect athletic specimen, and after Phelps retired he inherited his role as the sport’s American male standard bearer. He has been excellent on the international stage since 2017, but as he said Sunday, “It is a different type of pressure [at the Olympics]. I’m aware of that now and I’ll stop lying to myself. An event that happens every four years, for a race that [lasts] 40-something seconds or 20-something seconds, you have to be so perfect in that moment.
“With an extra year, it’s a five-year buildup—or a 24-year buildup, whatever you want to call it—there’s so much pressure in the moment. Your whole life boils down to a moment that will take 20-40 seconds. How crazy is that? And it’s every four years. I wouldn’t tell myself that during the meet, but it’s terrifying. A lot of it boils down to a very precise moment in the universe, and that just happens to be the Olympics.”
This was Dressel’s precise moment in the universe. He might well have another one in three years, but there are no guarantees. As he said, everything boils down to a flash of intense competition, and to handling the terror that comes with so much riding on so little time.
He handled it time and time again here, making something very difficult appear very easy. He dominated the competition, despite the physical and mental drain of contesting six different events and 12 total swims. And of those 12 swims, seven were clustered in the final three days of competition—a golden gauntlet he had to navigate.
Dressel said he didn’t sleep well during the meet, didn’t have enough nap time due to the inverted day-night competition schedule (echoed by several other swimmers), found himself “shaking all the time,” and believes he lost 10 pounds. His ripped physique did appear to be thinner by the end. Yet he betrayed no weakness until it was over, and his fatigue became evident.
“I can be proud of every swim, every effort I put in the water, every mental approach to every single race,” Dressel says. “I was nervous before races. Every race was not perfect. … Every morning when I woke up the first words weren’t always, ‘Oh, I’m so excited.’ Sometimes it was, ‘Oh f***, this is going to suck today.’ Sorry, just trying to be honest with you guys.
“But just because it’s bad doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.”
From his work staking the United States to a leadoff advantage in the 400-meter freestyle relay on the third day of the competition, Dressel was off to a flying start—and then he kept getting better. He out-touched Australia’s Kyle Chalmers by .06 to win the 100-meter freestyle in an Olympic record time. It was the first individual Olympic gold of his career, and the both the emotion and relief accompanying it were evident. “That freed him up to just go swim,” said U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden. “it’s a deep exhale, then you can go for it.”
Then Dressel dropped a bomb in the 100-meter butterfly final, breaking his own world record by .05—and needing to be that fast to hold off Hungarian Kristóf Milák. The only blemish on Dressel’s program came via two coaching decisions—the second of which was in the same session as the 100-meter fly victory. He was put in a bad position as the only male anchoring the mixed medley relay, tasked with trying to rally from too far back and finishing fifth—the worst placing in American Olympic relay history. That, combined with the decision not to use Dressel on the 800 freestyle relay a couple of days earlier, kept him from a sixth medal.
(Credit here to backstroker Ryan Murphy for some leadership. Before Dressel had even exited the water at the end of that shocking fifth-place finish, his childhood friend leaned down and told him to put the result behind and get ready to move on to Sunday.)
Dressel had enough left in the tank to end with a couple of powerful statements in the final session of a grueling meet. The first came in the 50-meter free, where he not only lowered the Olympic record to 21.07 but did so in a relative blowout. His .48 margin of victory over Florent Manaudou of France was the largest in Olympic history; Manaudou’s time (21.55) was actually closer to eighth than first.
That set the stage for the men’s medley relay, which came freighted with multiple burdens for the Americans. Dressel, with nothing to prove but something to maintain, joined forces with three teammates seeking redemption.
The four men who would comprise the American medley relay sat on a bench Saturday night facing U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden and USA Swimming national team managing director Lindsay Mintenko. Durden and Mintenko produced some numbers for their perusal.
The world record in the 400-meter medley relay was set by the U.S. in 2009 at the World Championships in Rome—the height of the souped-up suit era, when buoyant material produced tricked-up times. Durden and Mintenko showed their relay the splits from that race:
Aaron Peirsol 52.13 in the backstroke; Eric Shanteau 58.57 on the breaststroke; Michael Phelps 49.28 on the butterfly; David Walters 48.47 in the freestyle. Total time: 3:27.28.
Then they went over the splits that the current American quartet already had posted here: Murphy 52.19 in the back; Michael Andrew 58.84 in the breast; Dressel 49.45 in the fly; Zach Apple 48.04 in the free. Combined time: 3:28.52. Factor in flying relay starts for the final three legs, and that projects to the neighborhood of 3:27 flat.
The message: a world record is within your reach, and with that should come a gold medal. “They said, ‘Let’s go out there and try to be great tomorrow,’” Murphy recalls.
In a vacuum, pretty simple. In fact, there was a lot of ancillary pressure accompanying them to the starting block. First, the weight of history: America had never been beaten the men’s medley relay at the Olympic level, a ridiculous streak that underscores the decades-long U.S. domination in the pool. Then, the competition: Great Britain, riding a surge of confidence after a great overall performance here, appeared to have the stuff to dethrone the Americans. And finally, the disappointing outcomes and controversies that trailed after Murphy, Andrew and Apple.
Murphy came to Tokyo as the reigning gold medalist in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, not to mention a gold on this same medley relay team in which he led off with a world-record time. But he couldn’t defend either individual title, earning bronze in the 100 and silver in the 200, beaten by two Russians in the shorter event (Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Koselnikov) and one in the longer (Rylov).
After the silver in the 200, Murphy was asked if he had any concerns about the opposition in his events, given the “state of world doping.” The presumed implication in the question was the presence of Russia, which had been banned from these Games but the sanctions were diminished and hundreds of its athletes were allowed to compete—including the two who beat Murphy. He went in just far enough with his answer to spark an international hubbub.
"When I’m asked a question like that, I’ve got about like 15 thoughts—and 13 of them would get me into a lot of trouble,” Murphy said. “It is what it is. I try not to get caught up in that. It is a huge mental drain on me to go throughout the year knowing that I’m in a race that probably isn’t clean.” British backstroker Luke Greenbank, who finished third in the 200, later backed Murphy’s comments.
That sparked a grandiose clapback from the Russian Olympic Committee via Twitter: “How unnerving our victories are for some of our colleagues. Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Whether someone likes it or not. The old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again. English-language propaganda, oozing with verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive us those who are weaker. God is their judge. And for us—an assistant.”
Murphy, having put a bullseye on his back, brought that with him to the pool deck Sunday.
Breaststroker Michael Andrew sowed some anger with his refusal to be vaccinated and appearance in the mixed zone at least once this week without wearing a mask. But more relevant to this relay, his inclusion was questioned by many. Prior to the Saturday semifinals of the 50-meter freestyle, Andrew had been the biggest disappointment of the American men’s swim team, missing the podium in both the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter individual medley—the latter a case of collapsing in the freestyle leg after staking himself a huge lead through 150 meters.
Andrew, his stamina under question, had the 50-meter freestyle final before the medley relay. Could be handle both events, and would he be able to swim a breaststroke leg that was at least close to the blazing times he had posted in May and June? Some were advocating for Nic Fink or Andrew Wilson to take Andrew’s place on the relay.
As for Apple, he’d experienced both ends of the relay spectrum in Tokyo. He heroically anchored the 400-meter freestyle relay early in the meet, recording a scorching 46.69 time to pull away for gold. Then Apple became the scapegoat for what was (at the time) a historic flop in the 800-meter free relay. Swimming the third leg not long after the 100 free as an individual event, Apple cracked in the final 50. His 1:47.31 leg dropped the U.S. from second to fifth, and the Americans wound up finishing fourth— their first Olympic relay podium miss ever, men or women. Had Dressel been on that relay (as he desired), the U.S. could well have claimed a silver medal.
“I felt like I let not only my team down, but let down the history of American swimming,” says Apple, who previously had been an excellent relay swimmer.
That’s the American team that reported to the ready room for the final swimming competition of the Tokyo Olympics. Bruised, doubted, under siege, under pressure—yet ready to attack a world record.
Murphy went in first for the backstroke leg, and much like he did in Rio five years ago, he set the tone and staked the U.S. to a lead. The time: 52.31, slightly off what he’d done in the individual event, but still enough for a two-tenths cushion over second-place Italy—and, more importantly, a 1.32-second advantage over Britain.
Andrew dove in next, and although he was passed at the end by British monster Adam Peaty and Italy’s Nicolò Martinenghi, he did his job. Andrew split 58.49 and kept the U.S. within a second of the lead before giving way to the missile that is Dressel.
All he did, in his 12th and final swim of this competition, was drop the fastest 100-meter butterfly split in human history: 49.03, good enough to regain the lead and give Apple a half-second advantage. Apple threw down a 46.95 split that not only secured the gold but broke the world record. “To put that world record right in our face [the night before] … and to see it on the board is spectacular and really special,” Dressel says.
Redemption for three relay members. Coronation for the fourth.
His work done, Dressel quickly deflated from bulletproof Adonis to staggering emotional puddle. He bellowed in exultation, then sagged into Murphy in relief and fatigue. Before walking off, he plopped down on his behind on the pool deck, emotionally and physically shot. In the mixed zone talking to the media, Dressel briefly rested his head on Apple’s shoulder.
This tends to be how he is at the end of a major meet. When a prodigious human energy source who pours everything into each swim hits “E” on the emotional reservoir, it’s pretty evident.
“I’m really good at hiding my emotions until I’m not,” Dressel says. “I can put a pretty good show on before each race, but once I shut it off, it floods out.
“I’m glad to be done. I’m pretty over swimming at the moment.”
But he got all the crayons aligned just right. Historic times and medals secured, he maximized this one moment in the universe. He prepared, he executed, he triumphed, he exulted, he collapsed. Caeleb Dressel produced a final act in these Tokyo Olympics that rises to his own lifelong perfectionist standards.
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