Caeleb Dressel Has Rediscovered His Love for Swimming—And With It, Success

The seven-time Olympic gold medalist punched his first individual-event ticket to the Paris Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle Friday, completing a rise back to upper echelon of the sport after a difficult few years.
Dressel earned his first individual spot on the Olympic team Friday with a blistering swim in the 50-meter freestyle.
Dressel earned his first individual spot on the Olympic team Friday with a blistering swim in the 50-meter freestyle. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Here he comes again, just in time. The romance has returned in Caeleb Dressel’s love-hate relationship with swimming, a sport he has often owned and occasionally shunned over the last five years. That relationship status update is a blissful development for the United States’ Olympic medal hopes.

After winning the 50-meter freestyle in the U.S. Olympic Trials Friday night and punching his first individual-event ticket for Paris, then qualifying first for the 100 butterfly final Saturday, Dressel gave a group interview for the first time in a year. He sounded like a man who is rediscovering not just his stroke and speed, but also his love for swimming. Just listen to him describe the pool in Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I cannot stress enough how beautiful it is, clean—it tastes good,” he declared. “Like, I know that sounds weird. I’m not trying to be funny. Everything about the water. It’s just it really is  beautiful. I mean, absolutely gorgeous. The markings, the depth, the color, blocks, everything's gorgeous.”

Caeleb Dressel has tasted the pool and declared it good. That seems like a strong indicator that things in his world are trending positively. Not perfectly, but positively.

Caeleb Dressel dives into the pool in the 50-meter freestyle final.
Dressel will have another chance to qualify for the Olympics individually in the 100 butterfly final Saturday. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

The seven-time Olympic gold medalist came to this NFL stadium surrounded by questions as big as the venue itself. He disappeared two years ago, suffering a mental-health episode during the 2022 World Championships in Budapest and leaving abruptly. He was out of the water for about eight months thereafter, and it wasn’t at all clear whether he would ever swim competitively again.

He immersed himself in therapy, cautiously returned to training, took a swing at making the 2023 World Championships team, and didn’t come close. But those first steps on a journey of self-discovery and finding peace with swimming were important. They led to the next steps—more dedicated training and progressively better performances in a series of meets this spring.

Still, there were no guarantees that someone vital to American relays and sprint events—and thus to the overall U.S. swimming medal count—would be ready to fire in Indy. Turns out, he was. 

“This is a true test,” he said. “This is a really big test. I think I’m performing really well.”

Dressel is not the monster of 2019 to ‘21, when he was breaking world records and racking up medals in international events. But he’s still damn fast, with a third-place finish and relay spot in the 100 freestyle to go with winning the 50 free and stamping himself the favorite in the 100 fly. He’s getting better as this meet has progressed.

“It takes a lot of work,” he said. “And there’s parts of this meet I’ve had some very low lows. There’s parts in my hotel room that weren’t on camera. Talking with my wife (Meghan), talking with my therapist, it has not been smooth sailing this whole time. I know y’all get to see the smile. And I’m working on it. I’m trying to find those moments and then really relish in them. It’s just been fun. I really feel like I’m loving the sport.”

Now 27, Dressel is watching the next generation of sprint stars rise up to challenge him and, occasionally, beat him. And he’s mostly O.K. with that. 

Jack Alexy (age 21) dropped a 47.08-second 100 freestyle in prelims, the fastest non-Dressel time ever by an American. Chris Guiliano (20) won the event in 47.38 seconds, while also making the Olympic team in the 50 and 200.

“I think probably early on in my career it was, how long can I be dominant?” Dressel said. “And that's still a little bit of my mindset, but I think it’s switching a little bit to what can I show this younger generation with Jack and Chris. I mean, I’ve been next to them for almost every round of this meet. What can I do to show them love? They’re actually capable. So I might just be at the age where maybe it’s showing these younger guys something that they didn’t think they were doing.

“Watching Jack go 47.0, like, I didn’t want to lose, but it made me happy. I know how exciting it is to [go those times]. There’s not a whole lot of people that have done that. So I want to be dominant as long as I can, but there’s a little bit of a shift. Not to say I’m giving up and I’m trying to get, you know, third place, but it’s different.”

Dressel might feel himself slipping into elder statesman mode, but not so fast. The 21.41 he posted in winning the 50 free puts him fourth in the world (pending European Championships in that event this weekend), so he will be in the medal hunt there in Paris. He’s not come close to his world record of 49.45 in the 100 fly this year, but he is one of nine men in the world who have swam a 50-point-something in that event this year. And the American men’s 400 freestyle relay will roll into France as the favorites after the times thrown down in Indy.

“We’re going to get faster,” Dressel predicted. “So I look forward to that.”

But first, there is one more swim here in Indy in the 100 fly final. One more chance to feel the embrace of scores of fans who have been rooting for Dressel to emerge from his self-imposed exile healthy, happy and fast.

“It’s really nice to feel that from the crowd,” he said. “It’s really special. I didn’t think that’s something I would realize but it’s been really nice. You know what? I feel it.”

Pat Forde


Pat Forde covers college sports, the Olympics and horse racing for Sports Illustrated. Pat wrote two books and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his work at SI, Pat is also the co-host of the College Football Enquirer podcast. He is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and contributes to national radio shows. In a career spanning more than three decades, Pat has worked at Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and the Louisville Courier-Journal.