US swimming superstar Caeleb Dressel ready for more Herculean feats in Tokyo

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Captain of the US swim team, Caeleb Dressel is a fitting heir to the legendary Michael Phelps. At just shy of 25 years old and already crowned world champion 13 times, he’s hoping to rack up six gold medals in Tokyo.

Dressel is off to a good start. On Wednesday, he easily qualified for the 100m final, which will take place Thursday morning in Tokyo. Two days earlier, he led the US team to gold in the 4x100m relay. He was quick to hand the medal over to his teammate Brooks Curry, whom he had replaced in the final — a sure sign that Dressel expects many more medals coming his way.

Just a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday, the rising US star is determined to make his mark on the Tokyo Games. It’s not his first time at the Olympics: in 2016, he won two golds in the relays (4×100m freestyle and 4×100m medley). This time, he is aiming for six: three in individual races (the 100m freestyle, an Olympic highlight, plus the 100m butterfly and 50m) and three in relays (4x100m freestyle, medley, and mixed medley). The marathon run will have him competing every day this week.

Only two swimmers in Olympic history have won more medals: Michael Phelps, of course, with eight titles in as many races in Beijing in 2008, and Mark Spitz with seven in Munich in 1972.

Event after event, he ‘just keeps going’

Over the last four years, Dressel has shown that he is cut from the same cloth as his predecessors. In the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, he made his breakthrough with seven gold medals, matching the record set by Phelps a decade earlier. In Gwangju, South Korea in 2019, he stopped at six, but claimed two silver medals as well for a total of eight — unprecedented in a world championship. Moreover, he claimed a world record in the 100m butterfly, robbing Phelps of the title, as well as in the 50m (21.04 seconds) and 100m (46.96, the first under 47 seconds without a tech suit).

Inevitable as the comparisons may be, Dressel prefers not to be compared to Michael Phelps. Instead, he points to icons beyond the pool, such as the American football and baseball player Bo Jackson.

“He was a pure athlete, and he didn’t limit himself. I love that about him,” Dressel told USA Today in 2013. “I also look up to Muhammad Ali. I watch videos of him on YouTube all the time. He knew he wasn’t going to lose, and he was very verbal about it.”

If Dressel projects similar confidence, it’s not without reason. Coming in at 1.90m tall and 89kg, his athletic prowess is undeniable.

“There are no words to describe how fast [he] is,” said Singapore’s Joseph Schooling after finishing second to Dressel in Budapest in 2017.

“I got my ass kicked,” continued Schooling, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100m butterfly. “There’s really no other way to say that.” Beyond the record-breaking times, he added, “I’m more impressed by how [Dressel] can swim event after event and just keep going.”

The US champ, who started swimming at the age of five, also plays football and American football.

“I think it’s important for young swimmers to try other sports,” Dressel said in a recent interview for one of his sponsors. “I never wanted to pigeonhole myself. But whatever you choose to do, whatever you’re good at, make sure you enjoy it.”

‘He’s a good guy’

All throughout, Dressel has stuck to his principles. His toned physique and boyish good looks have earned him no shortage of ad spots, but he’s said to have kept his head on his shoulders, living a no-frills life close to nature. He married his high-school sweetheart Meghan in February, and loves to be photographed with his pets.

“He’s a super simple guy,” Florent Manaudou, one of his rivals in the 50m freestyle, told RMC Sport. “I used to always have something to hate in my rivals, like Cesar Cielo, who exasperated me. With Caeleb, there’s nothing like that — he’s really respectful and so it’s much more complicated. He’s a good guy, an ultra-respectful swimmer, very talented and very well rounded.”

Dressel always arrives at races with a blue bandana in hand — a keepsake from his teacher and mentor Claire McCool, who died of cancer in 2017.

“It’s the most important thing in my life for a physical object,” he told Swimming World magazine the following year. “It’s just nice to carry her behind the blocks in a physical form. She’s with me every race, and it will be until I finish my career.”

With this good luck charm poolside, Dressel heads Thursday into his most closely watched race: the 100m freestyle, where he faces not just reigning champion Kyle Chalmers of Australia, but Italy’s Thomas Ceccon — who took first in the qualifiers — and a slew of other near rivals, including the young Romanian David Popovici and Russia’s Kliment Kolesnikov.

Dressel will above all be focusing on himself.

“It may be a cliché, but I hate standing still,” he told the French sports outlet l’Equipe. “I always want to move forward. My greatest fear is to reach a plateau. And the harder it is, the more I learn.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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