The Florida native had the weight of the world’s expectation on his shoulders going into the event.
Could he continue his unbelievably successful form from the last two world championships? Will he captain the young USA team to victory in the all-important relays? Could he step up and fill the void left by Michael Phelps?
But five gold medals and a world record later, not only did Dressel deliver, but he also cemented his place in Olympic history as only the fifth swimmer to win five golds at a single Games.
Dressel made no secret of the struggles he experienced in the run up to Tokyo 2020.
The swim star was one of the most talked-about athletes across any sport, and the level of expectation placed upon him was mentally exhausting at times. The year delay to the Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic only heightened that pressure.
His first job in Japan was to help the USA’ men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team to victory, which he completed alongside Blake Pieroni, Bowen Becker and Zach Apple without a hitch.
He gained viral attention after being picked up by cameras tossing his gold medal to Brooks Curry in the stands, a touching tribute to his younger teammate who swam in the preliminary heats for the team. But it was all business for Dressel, who was already focussed on his three individual events to come.
Two days later, his real emotions came out. The look of total relief and exhaustion on Dressel’s face when he out-touched Rio 2016 champion Kyle Chalmers to land the coveted men’s 100m freestyle title was telling.
It had been a lifetime in the making, but the extreme pressure of the past five years had suddenly been released.
“I am pretty good at putting a face on,” Dressel told inews after. “I knew that weight was on my shoulders. [But] pressure is fine. It is when you turn it into stress; that is when it becomes a problem. My first swim I felt like I was turning the pressure into stress. The semi-final and final is when I found my groove.
“I know my name is thrown out there and I could care less about it. It is something that comes with the sport when you are on top of the podium.”
“I have to manage my emotions,” he continued.
“I cry a lot and I am an emotional person. So I can’t be exerting that energy that I should put into my swimming.” - Caeleb Dressel
That victory unleashed Dressel’s inner beast and in his next final, he set a new world record to win the 100m butterfly and a third gold at Tokyo 2020.
His time of 49.45 shaved 0.05 off his previous record, and was a whopping 0.23 seconds ahead of his nearest rival Kristof Milak.
After a quick rest, the American was back in the pool for the first-ever 4x100m mixed medley final. On this rare occasion, the USA got their tactics slightly wrong and Dressel was left with too much work to do on the anchor leg, coming home in fifth position alongside teammates Ryan Murphy, Lydia Jacoby and Torri Huske.
However, it wasn’t long before Dressel was back in the medals.
The final day of swimming competition began with the men’s 50m freestyle final. In the ready room before the race, Dressel was anxious, pacing back and forth while most of his rivals relaxed in their chairs.
That energy was then transferred into one of the 25-year-old’s trademark explosive starts, emerging in the water with a clear lead.
He never relinquished top spot and touched the wall in first, with clear daylight between himself and second-placed Florent Manoudou. It was a rare sight in a race that usually sees photo finishes.
Five finals, four gold medals. But Dressel’s exhausting Tokyo 2020 schedule wasn’t over yet.
His final race, the 4x100 medley relay, carried with it an unique pressure in that the United States has never lost it at the Olympics. With an Adam Peaty-inspired Great Britain going into the race as the reigning world champions, that record looked set to end.
But no USA relay team should ever be written off, especially one that has the greatest ever butterfly swimmer in it.
Alongside backstroker Ryan Murphy, breaststroker Michael Andrew, Dressel on fly and Zach Apple in anchor position, the USA put on a faultless display to touch home first in a new world record, maintaining their fine tradition in the event.
It was the perfect end for Dressel, who joined Americans Phelps, Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi, as well as East Germany’s Kristin Otto, as the only swimmers to win five golds at a single Olympics.
“I tried to convince myself that worlds was the same, and it is the same competition; but it is a lot different here. I’m aware of that now, and I’ll stop lying to myself – it means something different to prepare for something that happens every four years to prepare for something that happens over 40 seconds and 20-something seconds," the US star said.
"You have to be so perfect in that moment, especially as we had to have an extra year – we’ve had a five-year build-up and to be perfect. There is so much pressure in that one moment that your whole life boils down to a moment that takes 20 or 40 seconds. How crazy is that?”
The dust is still settling on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but with Paris 2024 only three years away, Dressel’s mind has already shifted back into planning mode.
“I very much would like to make the team, but got to get put on the team first,” he told CNBC. “I’m no priority over anybody in U.S. swimming. I got to make the team first, then we can talk about Paris.
“I don’t really care for the attention, I just want to swim fast.”
That’s typical of Dressel: humble, dedicated and passionate.
He even admitted that he ‘didn’t have the perfect race’ in Tokyo after his 100m freestyle victory. Just imagine what history he could write at Paris 2024 if he achieves that goal... and you wouldn’t bet against it.