Caeleb Dressel Is Back for Paris, But as a Changed Swimmer

A months-long hiatus from the sport has given the seven-time Olympic gold medalist a new perspective. Now he is peaking for Paris, but admits that he is still struggling while swimming fast.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel straddles the lane line in Lucas Oil Stadium, raising his sculpted upper body above the pool, a triumphant act he hadn’t performed in a swim meet in two years and three days—since just before the disappearance. Piercing blue eyes closed and arms raised, his face is a panoply of evolving emotions: relief, exhaustion, fulfillment. Then his eyes open and he slaps his right hand down in a celebratory splash.

Dressel vs. the water has been a fierce internal battle. The conflict between America’s best sprinter and the element he swims through with record-setting speed has been discussed in vague terms, not divulged in any detail. Everyone knows Dressel has struggled with the sport he once dominated, but few people know exactly how or why.

That is between Dressel, his family and his therapist. For the most part, the public just wants to see one of their favorite Olympians happy, healthy and gold-medal fast once again. He’s largely there on the first two—becoming a father this year has been a game-changer—and now the third one awaits in Paris.

To get there, he had to first prevail last month at Olympic trials—in Indianapolis, a city where he was laid low last year at the midway point back from the disappearance. The trials triumph was a stair step of improving performances: making the team as a relay swimmer but finishing third in the 100-meter freestyle, an event in which he holds the American record; winning the 50 free to punch his individual ticket; then winning the 100 butterfly in a time that stamps him as a serious Olympic gold-medal threat—if not the favorite. 

In the butterfly, an event in which he holds the world record, Dressel kept repeating to himself, “17, 19. 17, 19.” That’s his ideal stroke count—17 strokes out in the first 50, then 19 coming back home. Hit the count and there’s no way he should lose at this meet.

He nailed the count exactly, touching the wall and stopping the clock in 50.19 seconds, just .13 behind the No. 1 time in the world this year. It was Dressel’s 12th-fastest time ever in that event, but more significantly it was his fastest since pre-disappearance. That swim is what moved the 27-year-old, seven-time Olympic gold medalist to climb up on the lane line for the first time in a long time.

“For everything to come together—and for every swimmer that’s sat up here, it’s tough,” Dressel said in a post-race press conference. “There is no way around it. I’m not going to elaborate on it anymore. There’s no point. Everyone who has sat up here knows exactly what I'm talking about … the tears that come with it, the frustration and then also the high points.”

Dressel swimming at U.S. trials
At U.S. trials, Dressel spoke openly about the mental toll of the sport. / Al Bello/Getty Images

An extraordinary number of elite swimmers do know exactly what Dressel is talking about. The mental toll of the sport can be pronounced, and has never been more openly discussed than it was at Olympic trials. Athlete after athlete, upon making the U.S. team, discussed the immense stress of condensing months of grueling training into minutes of make-or-break racing (mere seconds, in some cases). And they talked about the weight of trying to stay on top after getting there. Therapists are the hidden heroes of the sport.

For Dressel, the most prominent current swimmer to have endured a mental health episode that temporarily drove him from the sport, there is no magical attainment of total serenity. He is prone to constant self-analysis, hyper-critiquing and strongly reacting to everything. His brain and body are rarely still.

Thus even during the successful meet in Indy, there were bouts of emotional turbulence. He has been reluctant to speak to the media in recent years but when he does, he is disarmingly honest and insightful, willing to acknowledge that he’s still struggling while swimming fast.

“There’s parts of this meet I’ve had some very low lows,” he said. “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.”

Dressel’s aquatic path over the past five years traverses from apex to nadir to this hopeful point of return to the top. The Olympics will be his first international meet since the disappearance. He’s armed himself for this latest, potentially greatest, and perhaps final battle with the water.

Dressel is swimming slow, solitary laps in the diving well of a pool in Gwangju, South Korea. It’s July 27, 2019, a brutally steamy night at Nambu University, and Dressel is pushing himself through the latter stages of arguably his greatest meet.

He’d just won his fourth gold medal of the FINA World Championships, in the 50 freestyle. There are 34 minutes between that and the 100 butterfly final, an event in which Dressel broke Michael Phelps’ world record during semifinals the night before. That’s not enough time for any rest or a real warmdown, so Dressel is making use of the adjacent diving well to keep his body moving and muscles loose between exertions.

Back up on the blocks, Dressel blasts his way to gold in the 100 fly—not quite as fast as his new world record, but enough to win easily. And 66 minutes after that, Dressel swims the lead-off leg in the mixed freestyle relay, putting the U.S. in first. His teammates do the rest, setting a world record and giving him his third gold of the night in less than two hours—a herculean performance.

Finishing the meet the following day with six gold medals and two silver and winning all four of his individual events along the way, Dressel established himself as the preeminent male swimmer of the post-Phelps era. He also was completely spent. His parents, Mike and Christina, and wife Meghan snuck through an athlete entrance to the Nambu University pool area after Caeleb’s final race, and they found a man in need of a group hug. They couldn’t even keep him upright.

“He was visibly shaking and just collapsed,” Meghan recalled in 2021. The family ended up on the floor with him. Abs spasming, knuckles bloody from constantly pulling on and taking off skintight racing suits; legs shot, mind fried—that was a window into how far Dressel pushes himself when he races.

Dressel close-up starting block
Dressel's journey to this summer's Olympics dates back to his peak performances in 2019. / Al Bello/Getty Images

“I broke down,” he said in ’21. “I started crying. It was tough.” This wasn’t the first time Dressel reached the end of a big meet at a breaking point. As a teenager he dominated the 2013 junior nationals in Greensboro, N.C., but was on the verge of passing out after several races. Hyperventilating amid questionable indoor air quality at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, Dressel repeatedly had to be half-carried outside for fresh air. One night he was taken to a local hospital to have his breathing checked.

Already committed to swim at Florida at that point, Dressel walked away for several months, seeking counseling. He returned and had one of the all-time great collegiate careers, but a pattern of embrace and aversion with swimming was established.

After the exhausting tour de force in Korea, Dressel had a year to refill his mental tank for the Tokyo Olympics—or so everyone thought. One year became two, thanks to the pandemic. Never one to indulge in idle time, Dressel filled the void by working on his 10-acre farm near Micanopy, Fla., about 15 miles from his Gainesville training base. He jumped out of an airplane. He went off-roading in his truck. He hiked segments of the Appalachian Trail with his family.

When it was time to crank up for the 2021 Olympics, Dressel was ready. But wary.

Eating burgers at an outdoor table at Five Guys outside of Jacksonville three years ago, Christina Dressel pushes back at the mere mention of the name Michael Phelps. The buildup is on for Tokyo, and the sports media has done what it does—slotting in someone as “The Next (Fill In The Blank).” For obvious reasons, Christina’s son was anointed The Next Phelps

Except he wasn’t, because there is no Next Phelps—nobody else is winning 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold, eight of them in a single Summer Games. And Christina didn’t want that impossible label foisted onto the shoulders of her son.

“He’s not Phelps,” she says. “He doesn’t want to be Phelps.”

She’d seen the third of her four children display perfectionist tendencies in kindergarten. He would meticulously line up crayons at uniform height or despair over losing a single Lego. “I have got my hands full with this one,” she thought to herself watching young Caeleb.

Dressel went to Tokyo with a six-race program, choosing an ambitious-but-manageable Olympics over an attempt at replicating Mark Spitz’s seven golds in 1972 or Phelps’ record eight in ’08. He won five, breaking his own world record in the 100 fly. The only miss was in the mixed medley relay, which was more a factor of lineup mismanagement than anything Dressel or the other swimmers did wrong in the water. It was spectacular, one of the all-time great Olympic performances. But it wasn’t Phelpsian.

“I get it, trying to find the next guy,” Dressel said last month in Indy. “But I have said multiple times, I’m not Michael, at all, and I’m fine with admitting that. I struggled with it a little bit in the beginning: Oh man, these comparisons don’t seem fair. I used to have a little shame because I’m not Michael. …  I’m very proud of the things I have done in this sport and will continue to do, but, yeah, there will never be another Michael.”

Dressel celebrates
Dressel won five gold medals in Tokyo, including the 4x100-meter medley relay with his U.S. teammates. / Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

After the final race and his final gold medal in Tokyo, Dressel spent more time expounding on the Team USA bonding than his own exploits. Specifically, he talked about teaching some of the U.S. swimmers how to play poker in the athlete village.

“Moments like that, it’s so much fun,” he said. “And they all clapped for each other on every hand, it’s the craziest thing. But moments like that, and moments at [training] camp, are where we become Team USA. … The stupid little moments—it’s not the big moments that are caught on camera. It’s the moments you don’t see.”

Joy and satisfaction radiated at that point. Or so we thought. It wasn’t until later that we learned Dressel’s five-gold Olympics was considered flawed by the perfectionist himself. 

“I didn't hit any of my goal times in Tokyo,” Dressel said in a 2022 interview with People. “I just won five gold medals on the biggest world stage in sports, and I’m thinking about how I wish I would’ve gone faster in certain events.”

This was the baggage Dressel took with him to the ’22 World Championships.

Dressel is astride a lane line in Budapest, Hungary. It is June 19, 2022. It’s the same post race celebration as in Indianapolis two years later. Except it’s totally different.

Dressel had just won the 50 butterfly, his second World Championships gold medal in as many days. By all appearances, this meet seemed to be a continuation of the dominance he exerted in 2019 and ’21.

But if you looked closely at his face after climbing on the lane line, there was an intensity that verged on agitation, maybe anger. It took Dressel a full 14 seconds after the race to smile, and only then when bronze-winning American teammate Michael Andrew swam over to celebrate with him. 

Two days later, Dressel swam the first round of the 100 freestyle and qualified second, a routine prelim swim. Then he abruptly withdrew from the event and eventually dropped out of the meet, citing a medical situation.

This marked the start of the disappearance. 

Dressel has never explained what happened in Budapest. His coach, Anthony Nesty, alluded in 2023 to a mental health issue, and that’s about it. It’s a testament to how much Dressel is liked and respected in the USA Swimming community that no details have emerged. A lot of teammates and coaches were protective of his privacy.

“The easiest way to put it is, my body kept score,” was the closest Dressel came to addressing it, in 2023. “There are a lot of things I shoved down and they all came boiling up, so I didn’t have a choice. I used to pride myself in shoving things down, and it worked for quite a while, until I couldn’t anymore.”

Dressel swimming
The world championships in Budapest in June 2022 marked the start of Dressel's eight-month hiatus from swimming. / Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

In August 2022, Dressel posted an advertisement for his suit sponsor, Speedo, on Instagram. A month later he posted something in his own words on what he’d been up to while out of the pool. “I finally went on a honeymoon to Iceland, I bought a tractor, hiked another section of the Appalachian Trail, swam with some manatees. … I’ll be back."

It took a while; he went about eight months without swimming at all. He started therapy at Florida, walking the long way around the swim facility on campus so he wouldn’t see it. Nesty gave him space. The entire sport gave him space.

Finally, in spring 2023, Dressel told Nesty he was ready to return to training. The initial parameters were 30 minutes at a time, max. There would be no headlong dive back into the rigorous, all-consuming, slave-to-the-schedule life he left behind.

The public wouldn’t see him again for 11 months, and when it did he was a changed swimmer. 

Dressel is sitting at a table in the crowded sports bar in the Indianapolis JW Marriott, High Velocity. He is the picture of high anxiety. Slouched in his seat, he has the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head. Meghan sits across the table from him. Conversation is minimal.

It is June 27, 2023. He’s in Indy competing at U.S. National Championships, attempting a short-cut comeback to make the World Championships. It’s not going well—the American record-holder in the 50 and 100 freestyles finished tied for 22nd in the former and 23rd in the latter. He rebounded to swim better in the butterfly events, but still didn’t make the U.S. team for worlds. 

While Dressel is brooding over a plate of food in High Velocity, fellow Florida sprinter Macguire McDuff comes over for a long talk at the table. Dressel seems to welcome the company and the conversation. At the end of it, the two rise and embrace, with McDuff symbolically serving as the entire sport of swimming giving its struggling superstar a hug.

“I’ve always loved the sport and how fair it is,” Dressel said at the end of that humbling meet. “I’m proud of myself and the results, believe it or not. I know it’s shocking. This is definitely something different. I wouldn’t have changed anything about this year.”

The year was what it needed to be. A cleanse. And a start.

Dressel is walking out onto the mammoth, oversized pool deck before a race in Lucas Oil—the first-ever competition pool built into an NFL stadium. The record-setting crowd roars, and Dressel does something he’s never done entering the arena.

He raises both hands over his head in appreciation of the ovation. After spending a lifetime walking to the starting blocks in stoic focus, impervious to what swirled around him, he is receiving the fans’ warmth and returning it.

“I've never done that in my life, and all of the sudden I'm like, I’m kinda feeling this,” Dressel said. “Just the crowd, feeling the love from everybody, that's something new. I thought all right, I guess we're doing this. And I had a pretty good swim, so I'm like, ‘I’ve got do this every time now.’ ” 

Thus, the crowd in Indy had a week of Caeleb waves, in the pool and out, culminating in the relieved and contemplative celebration atop the lane line. He could win four or five medals in Paris if he continues the trajectory from trials. It’s all hitting him differently this quadrennial—a father now, a former phenom turned elder statesman, a perfect swimming specimen learning to accept imperfect performances. He’s now able to acknowledge the scariest monster in every swimmer’s mind.

Dressel celebrates
Dressel's trials triumph in June was an important step in his journey back to the top of swimming. / Al Bello/Getty Images

“I don't know if I’ll ever [swim] a best time ever again,” he said. “That's tough to say out loud, it really is.”

Perhaps that’s why, somewhere in the latter stages of his swimming journey, he’s wistful about where it started. As a scrawny kid with natural ability, diving into a race without a care, swimming personal-best times every time—that monster in the mind didn’t even exist. It was years from being born.

“Those honestly were some of the best days,” Dressel said. “Man, if I could get back to the 10-year-old just simply swimming—but it won’t be that. That’s the hard part. I would love to get to that point, but it won’t.”

Dressel will never reduce his sport to the simplest essence that made it so fun as a child. But he’s come a long way—far enough to get on a lane line and celebrate performances that aren’t perfect, but are good enough.

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Pat Forde


Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who covers college football and college basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He cohosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Forde has won 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards, has been published three times in the Best American Sports Writing book series, and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, he lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were collegiate swimmers.