“It’s awesome seeing the birth of a superstar.”
Matt Grevers, the 32-year-old captain of the United States swimming team at the world championships in Budapest, and a six-time Olympic medallist, paid homage to the phenomenon that is Caeleb Dressel.
Grevers wasn’t aggrandising Dressel’s achievements at swimming’s biggest event after the Olympics. For years, US and world swimming had been held to the standards of another superstar who had dominated the pool like none other.
On Sunday night, Michael Phelps sent a congratulatory message to Dressel on Instagram. “This kid is on fire!! So damn fun to watch buddy!!!!” the 23-time Olympic gold medallist posted. He was right. Over the course of the competition, Dressel had razed the competition.
Wins three golds in 90 minutes
Dressel joined an elite group comprising Phelps and Mark Spitz as the only swimmers to have won seven medals at a world championship or the Olympics. Phelps is the only man to have done it twice, following up his seven-gold haul in Melbourne in 2007 with an even-greater tally of eight golds in Beijing in 2008.
Mark Spitz and his moustache had powered to seven golds in Munich, before Dressel became only the third man to emulate the feat in Budapest on Sunday. Perhaps it bodes well for Dressel that Phelps followed up his world championship performance with his gargantuan Olympic feat.
Phelps’s feat still stands as the best performance in a world championship – five individual and two relay golds. Dressel, a 20-year-old University of Florida student won three individual golds and four in relays.
“The comparisons [with Phelps] are probably inevitable,” Dressel said. “But I’m not the same person as Michael.” Yet he pulled off a feat that even Phelps had not in his medal-laden career – by becoming the first swimmer to win three golds at a world championship or the Olympics in one session of swimming.
In doing so, he bested the one man who beat Phelps at Rio. Joseph Schooling, the 100-metre butterfly champ with an Olympic record, was left trailing in his wake as Dressel clocked a blistering 49.86 seconds, just four-hundredths of a second off Phelps’s world record set at the 2009 world championships in Rome before world swimming’s governing body Fina banned full-body buoyant polyurethane suits.
Six-month break from swimming
Dressel won two golds in mixed relays, events that will be part of Tokyo 2020, events that Phelps did not have access to but that should not take away any credit from the young star.
Interestingly, Schooling and Dressel have trained at the Bolles school in Jacksonville but have never been rivals for the eight years they have known each other, as the latter was never considered a freestyler. That was, until this year’s NCAA Championships where Dressel’s speed in the final stretch saw him clock the fastest-ever time of the meet, edging out the man who previously held two of the top three times.
By the time Dressel moved to the University of Florida at the age of 17, he was earmarked as a future great, holding seven age-group national records and the 100-metre freestyle junior world championship record.
Before breaking three American records at the 2017 worlds, Dressel became the first high-school age swimmer to swim a sub-19-second time at the 200-yard freestyle event in 2013, at the Greensboro Aquatic Centre in North Carolina.
Most bizarrely, Dressel quit swimming after that event. “I wasn’t even thinking about swimming during that time period,” he had said. “During those six months, I didn’t touch water. I didn’t even think about touching water.”
It was only the lure of training under University of Florida head coach Gregg Troy that pulled him back to swimming. After winning his first national championship in 2016, the US coaching staff would pick Dressel over Phelps to lead the men’s 400-metre relay team, a move that paid off as they won the gold, the first of the 20-year-old’s two at the Olympics.
In seventh heaven
Yet, no one, including Dressel himself, could have had an inkling of what was to follow at the world championships. The Florida native, who maintained a detailed log book to track his ever-reducing times, leading the 4X100-metre freestyle relay team to victory, before following it up with a 4X100-metre mixed medley relay win, which preceded his first individual gold medal in the 100-metre freestyle final.
This was nothing compared to what was to follow, as he would win three golds in a single evening. The 50-metre freestyle American record would fall first, before the 100 fly, where Schooling had to settle for a bronze.
“That was phenomenal,” Schooling said. “There were no words to describe how fast that is. He just did 50 free, and he had a bunch of events before. That makes it even more impressive. That’s all, really.”
Dressel used what was left in his tank to lead the mixed 4X100-metre relay to a victory, splitting 47.22 seconds, just five-hundredths off his effort in the individual 100 free win. On Day 8, Dressel (fly) and Matt Grevers (back), Kevin Cordes (breaststroke) and Nathan Adrian (freestyle) won the 4X100-medley relay gold to clinch the US’ 18th gold at the championships.
At the end, captain Grevers summed it up, “There is always someone to fill the spot. People want to fill those gaps. Dressel did it and a lot of others too. I think Michael might come back. After watching this meet he might get the hitch. I know he is a competitor and he might want to help out.”
If Dressel’s performance in the last week is anything to go by, he is more than a mere spot-filler.