Comebacks Complete: Caeleb Dressel, Simone Manuel Book Trips to Another Olympics

After facing battles in and out of the pool over the last few years, the two 27-year-olds and Team USA veterans finished their arduous journeys back to the top of the sport Wednesday by claiming spots in their third Summer Games.
Manuel (left) and Dressel (right) both qualified for their third Olympic Games Wednesday, each completing their own personal comebacks to do so.
Manuel (left) and Dressel (right) both qualified for their third Olympic Games Wednesday, each completing their own personal comebacks to do so. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY NETWORK

Shortly after noon Wednesday, August Dressel was out and about on the streets of Indianapolis. August, just four months old, was being pushed in a stroller by his mom, Meghan, with aunt Sherridon Dressel walking alongside. Sucking on a pacifier in the midwestern heat, August was blissfully unaware of what hovered over his father.

Caeleb Dressel was swimming for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team after two years of fleeing the sport and meandering back. Becoming a father was part of the journey, perhaps the kind of life development that can take a man’s mind away from being his own harshest critic.

Simone Manuel had a major life change of her own in recent months—getting married. She, too, had wandered into physical and mental disarray in recent years, unsure if she would ever be a great swimmer again.

On an electric and emotional night at Lucas Oil Stadium Wednesday, Dressel and Manuel came back. There were tears, from Manuel on the podium and from Dressel as he held August and kissed him. There were smiles at a mission at least partly accomplished by two 27-year-olds who bear the scars of their unkind sport.

Jack Alexy celebrates with Caeleb Dressel after finishing second and third in the 100-meter freestyle final at Olympic Trials
Dressel finished third in the men's 100 freestyle final Wednesday, narrowly missing out on earning an individual Olympic spot but claiming a place on the 400-meter freestyle relay team. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

At another point in time, it would have been deeply disappointing for the American record-holders in the 100 freestyle to finish third (Dressel) and fourth (Manuel) in that event. But not at this point. They’re both Olympians for the third time, navigating through a purgatory that remains partially mysterious.

They’re still capable of elite performances, and still capable of bringing fans to their feet. The largest crowd ever for an indoor swim meet, 22,209 strong, bathed them in welcoming cheers.

“This sport, realistically speaking, has been a very lonely place for me,” Manuel said. “I think after Tokyo (in 2021) I felt even more alone. … Being in this arena and being surrounded by these fans has honestly been so healing.”

Manuel spoke articulately about her journey back from overtraining syndrome, which left her a shell of her former self at Olympic Trials three years ago. She gritted out a spot on the team in the 50 freestyle, then got out of the pool for five months to rest. She changed coaches, moving to train with Bob Bowman at Arizona State, then arduously and incrementally dug herself out of a deep hole.

“I definitely think that through the process there were times where I was like why am I doing this? I can think back to certain meets and results that I had at those competitions, and you travel home on Sunday, and I'm like, I really don't want to go to practice Monday. Like I'm not ready to go back just because I wasn't seeing the progress I wanted.

“So I think there was a lot of ebbs and flows in the journey, but I don't think in my mind there ever was an option to quit. I don't know, getting through trials in 2021 was a tough journey, so I felt like, in some way, I had some armor to be able to get through this one.”

Dressel did not speak publicly at all, as has been his recurring stance for nearly a year. The men’s press conference for the top four finishers in the event—Chris Guiliano, Jack Alexy, Dressel and Hunter Armstrong—was canceled late Wednesday, ostensibly because Alexy was delayed in drug testing. (He was outside the venue signing autographs not long after the interview was canceled, so that’s interesting.) But Dressel wasn’t going to show anyway.

He’s become reclusive since his breakdown at the 2022 World Championships in Hungary, dropping out of the meet after two events and stopping swimming for months. He immersed himself in therapy to deal with whatever was tormenting him.

Here in Indianapolis last summer, Dressel attempted to come back at the U.S. National Championships. His lack of training showed, and he didn’t come close to making the team. But it at least was a start back, as he gradually put the pieces back together.

Dressel returned to competition this spring and kept trending the right way through meets in March, April and May. By the time he got to Indy, he was a reasonable facsimile of his old self—not Peak Caeleb, but once again one of the fastest men in America.

In the 100 free final Wednesday night, Dressel as usual was first to the 15-meter mark, when swimmers have to break the surface. He slipped back to fourth at the turn, but closed furiously in the final meters to nearly nab first-place Guiliano and second-place Alexy. Dressel’s time of 47.53 seconds put him only .15 behind Guiliano. It also was his fastest time since 2021, when he won five gold medals in Tokyo and ruled the sport.

With the top six finishers all breaking 48 seconds, the collective 100 freestyle performances bodes well for the U.S. in the 400 freestyle relay. The American men are under siege from competitors around the globe, but they can plant their flag with that relay early in the Olympic schedule.

“Oh my God, top six under 48!” Dressel exclaimed on NBC while looking at the scoreboard to see the results of the race. “That’s quick.”

Then Dressel nearly left the pool deck without doing the one thing everyone who makes the Olympic team longs to do—signing the oversized Paris postcard. Guiliano had to grab him and remind him to put his autograph on it.

Gretchen Walsh, Torri Huske, Kate Douglass and Simone Manuel wave to the crowd after the 100-meter freestyle final.
The women's 100-meter freestyle final proved to be quick on Wednesday, but Manuel managed to slip into fourth place, assuring her a spot on Team USA. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

The women were similarly fast, with seven out of eight breaking 54 seconds and the top two—Kate Douglass and Torri Huske—breaking 53. Manuel did not quite go as fast Wednesday as she had in the first two rounds, finishing in 53.25 seconds. But it was enough to lock up another Summer Games appearance for a woman with five Olympic medals on her résumé.

“Hearing Simone's story, it's very moving,” said Gretchen Walsh, who finished third. “I think she's a great example to just put into perspective what you can go through in this sport. It's very unforgiving. 

“She’s a true inspiration to everyone on Team USA. I’m excited to have her as a role model out in Paris, and I’m just looking forward to experiencing my first Olympics with her third Olympics, and it should be one for the books for sure.”

Dressel will have two other chances to make the team in individual events, in the 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle. Manuel also will have a chance in the 50. They may not make it, and they may never be the swimmers they once were. But they came back to the sport at the Olympic level, after falling to the depths. That’s victory in and of itself.


Published |Modified
Pat Forde

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.