“I don’t go to competitions to count medals,” Caeleb Dressel proclaimed at the beginning of the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju. He had already won seven World Championship titles in Budapest in 2017 and could have won eight in the Republic of Korea. But in the end, the counter stopped at six after two minor setbacks (silver medals) in both the men’s and mixed 4x100m medley relays. Simply put, it is better not to depend on others, and his four individual titles (50m and 100m freestyle, 50m and 100m butterfly) were won due to his powerful sportsmanship and performance.
Like the alligator, the emblem of the University of Florida whose colours he brilliantly represents, he showed a rare explosiveness as he approached the pool, gaining a decisive advantage from his initial plunge and subsequent turns. The power he displays in the water contrasts dramatically with his pre-race preparation rituals. He enters into an extremely calm, intense state of concentration, saying a short prayer before climbing onto the starting block. He holds a bandana close to his mouth, a good-luck charm given to him by the husband of one of his high school teachers, Clairie McCool, who died of breast cancer in 2015.
Faster than Michael Phelps
His path to the top was not a linear one, even though he showed obvious talent at an early age, following in the footsteps of his older brother Tyler. He chose to focus on swimming at the age of 12, after having played football in his native Florida. At 17, he decided to take a six-month break during which he never set foot in a pool. He described this as his dark period, during which his late mathematics teacher was one of his most ardent supporters. While at university, he flourished at the highest national levels of competition. In 2016, he participated in his first Olympic Games in Rio, winning two gold medals in the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relays.
I don’t go to competitions to count medalsCaeleb Dressel USA
He now seems set for individual glory as he dominates the butterfly and the front crawl. In Gwangju, he clocked the third fastest time in the history of the 100m freestyle (46.96 seconds) to win the coveted gold medal. He then broke the 100m world butterfly record at 49.50 seconds, 32 hundredths of a second better than Michael Phelps’ performance more than a decade ago. “I’m making my mark in swimming history. It’s amazing. I can now say that at one point I was the best, that I left a mark in the history of my sport. It’s really crazy for a small-town guy like me.
His 50m wins in the butterfly came via a huge lead: 35 hundredths of a second ahead of the Russian Kostin, as well as 41 hundredths of a second ahead of Brazil’s Fratus and Greece’s Gkolomeev in the front crawl. He rejects the comparison to Michael Phelps, preferring to emphasise his more human side. “Perfection doesn’t exist,” he says. “I’m just looking to improve in my field and as an individual.” He can even be a little anxious, as on the morning of the 50m butterfly: “My pulse was racing at 150 beats per minute.” So he played car-racing games on his phone and reread a book he’s been a fan of since high school called “Zen in the Martial Arts”. He also won the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m mixed freestyle relay, in which the US team set a new world record of 4:19.40.
While Caeleb is making his mark on the swimming world, he longs for nothing more than escape. He has created a rule with his three siblings, who are all past or present competitive swimmers. No talk of swimming in the house. But even if he doesn’t like it, he will, of course, find himself at the centre of family discussions during the next Olympic Games. In the freestyle and butterfly, he’s the man to beat!