When Michael Phelps retired at the Rio 2016 Olympics, few might have believed that Caeleb Dressel would be his successor.
The then lanky 19-year-old teamed up with Phelps to win 4x100 freestyle gold in Brazil, before competing in the heats of the 4x100 medley relay, where he secured his second gold medal after Team USA won in the final. But there was nothing to suggest just yet that this was a man destined for greatness.
Many thought multiple world-record holder Katie Ledecky could be the one, having won four gold medals at Rio. But as a freestyle specialist, she could never achieve the record eight gold medals Phelps won at Beijing 2008.
The search for USA’s new champion didn’t last long. At the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Dressel announced his arrival at the top table of swimming with seven gold medals.
Heading into the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, there was an enormous weight of expectation on his shoulders. At times, it became too much.
“A couple of weeks before worlds, I was crying at more than one practice per week, just because of how bad I was doing under the pressure that was coming with it and what I expected of myself,” Dressel revealed at the USA Swimming awards in 2019. “I don’t like putting my body through six days of mental and physical torture, and that’s honestly what it is.”
But it was worth it. The Florida native bagged an eight-medal haul (including six golds and two silvers) to beat Phelps’ previous world champs record of seven. He also broke a 10-year-old 100m butterfly world record, which was previously held by none other than Phelps.
With an Olympic Games and 13 world titles now under his belt, everything is set for the 24-year-old to become a mega star in Japan.
As much as Dressel prefers to shy away from constant comparisons with the Baltimore Bullet, they are unavoidable.
“I don’t want to say I just brush it off, because I know it’s going to be inevitable, but that’s not why I’m in this sport... It’s not to beat Michael. It’s not to go faster than Michael,” he told AP. “I’m not in this to beat anybody’s medal count or records. I just want to see how far I can take this.
“I’m just a kid from Green Cove, who has no business taking it as far as I have.”
Dressel’s modesty is undoubtedly one of the foundations of his success. But even Phelps himself suggested that his former relay teammate could match his achievements.
"If there's someone who doesn't care how hard it's going to be, how hard they're going to have to work, how much pain they're willing to put their body through, we might see it," the 23-time Olympic gold medallist told AP at the 2019 World Championships.
While it is unlikely that he will take on eight events at Tokyo 2020, like Phelps did at Beijing 2008, plenty more records stand to be demolished. Currently, he is the second-fastest 100m freestyle in history, and the third-fastest 50m freestyler, while he will also hope to improve his 100m butterfly world record. That is before even considering the relays, where Team USA boasts an unbelievably deep roster of talent.
Dressel is going to have a hard time matching Phelps’ Olympic record at a single Games.
For starters, it’s important to remember that he will have fewer race options than he did at the 2019 world champs, where his octuple of medals included gold in the 50m butterfly, which is not an Olympic event.
As things stand, Dressel is the favourite for Olympic gold in the individual 50m and 100m freestyle events, as well as the 100m fly. It gets less predictable from here, as the University of Florida graduate will need to rely on his teammates to pull through in four relay events.
With an Adam Peaty-inspired Great Britain having sensationally upset the USA in the men’s 4x100m medley relay at the world championships, success will by no means be a given.
One advantage Dressel has over Phelps, however, is in another relay. The 4x100m mixed medley will make its debut in Tokyo, and while the USA were pipped to first place by Australia in the event in Gwangju, they will likely be fielding an all-Olympic champion line up in the four strokes, including Ryan Murphy (backstroke), Lilly King (breaststroke), Dressel (freestyle) and Simone Manuel (freestyle).
For now, Dressel will continue to leave the Phelps comparisons to the media and the public, concentrating only on himself.
As a sprint specialist, where every race is decided by fractions of a second and subsequently there is no room for error, he is facing a very different challenge. One mistimed stroke could cost him even being on the podium.
But Dressel has consistently proven at the highest level that he is up to the task. Even without winning eight gold medals, it would take a brave person to bet against him becoming a legend in Tokyo.