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With Michael Phelps Retired, Who Will Follow In His Footsteps?

By Peggy Shinn | July 24, 2017, 11:29 a.m. (ET)

Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning gold in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Aug. 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.


When swimming began at the 2017 FINA World Championships in the Danube Arena in Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday, it marked the first time in the 21st century that neither Michael Phelps nor Ryan Lochte is on the Team USA roster. 

In every world championships meet since 2001, these two men have combined to win a staggering share of Team USA’s total medals.

Of the 225 total medals won by American swimmers since 2001 worlds, Phelps won 14.1 percent — and almost a fifth of the medals won from 2001 to 2011 (the last time he competed at worlds). Together, Phelps and Lochte collected over a quarter of all American medals (26.1 percent), and 43.1 percent of the gold medals, during this time.

So how do Team USA’s medal chances look at worlds this year? The roster features 45 swimmers, including 24 Olympic medalists — “a similar mix to last summer when we had success in Rio,” said head men’s coach Dave Durden, referring to a mix of veterans and younger swimmers traveling to Budapest.

But he was quick to concede, “we’re not going to fill that void of a Michael Phelps.”

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Then he added, “We don’t need to have someone be a Michael Phelps, we need to have our guys be themselves.”

Still, Phelpsian expectations will fall heavily on two names in Budapest: Caeleb Dressel and Chase Kalisz. Dressel could lead the medal count for the men at the 2017 world championships, and Kalisz hopes to carry on the legacy created by Phelps and Lochte in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys.

* * *

On the men’s roster, Rio Olympian Dressel qualified to swim in the most events. The University of Florida swimmer stormed through nationals, earning world championship berths in the sprint freestyle races (50- and 100-meter), the 50 and 100 butterfly, and the 4x200 freestyle. He will also likely compete in the 4x100 freestyle, perhaps the 4x100 medley and a mixed relay or two.

It was a huge step for Dressel, who only qualified to compete in the 100 freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games. He finished sixth in Rio, but won two gold medals in the men’s 4x100 freestyle and medley.

Now Dressel could compete for up to nine medals at the 2017 world championships — more than Phelps or Lochte ever won at one world championships or Olympic Games (although the two mixed relays were not part of the world championships program until 2015).

But 20-year-old Dressel, who’s known for his strong faith, multiple tattoos and genuine modesty, does not see himself as the next big name in swimming.

“There’s multiple new faces of the sport,” Dressel stated. “There are a bunch of new and upcoming swimmers, and I don’t think you can put that solely on one person.”

Durden is aware of the expectations put on the young swimmer, especially now that the spotlight is looking for a new focal point. But the coach is happy with Dressel’s progress.

“It’s always tough with some younger swimmers as expectations are put on them that are not necessarily fair to them,” Durden said. “If [Caeleb] is allowed to go about his process in the way that he needs to, I think he’s going to see great success.”

Dressel’s competition agrees. 

“The sky’s the limit certainly as [Caeleb} competes the 50 through the 200 in freestyle and the 50 and 100 fly,” said Nathan Adrian, who has been the leader of U.S. freestyle sprinting for the past eight years. “But that’s a really grueling schedule come worlds.”

If Dressel enters four individual events and five relays, he will compete in at least one final every day but one, and on two of the days, he will swim in three finals.

“He’s taking it methodically, he’s taking it one race at a time,” said Adrian. “That’s the only way that I know how to do it. That’s the way that I saw Michael do it in 2008 [when he won eight gold medals in the Beijing Games].”

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Kalisz, who idolized Phelps when he was growing up, won a silver medal in the 400 IM at the 2016 Olympics. He also won medals in the 400 IM at the past two world championships (silver in 2013, bronze in 2015).

But Kalisz, 23, no longer considers himself “just a 400 IMer.” He likes “swimming shorter things,” he admitted at nationals. And he qualified for the 200 IM as well, swimming the fourth-fastest time in the world this year (1:56.51 — 0.7 seconds faster than his personal best).

Kalisz, who finished his collegiate eligibility at the University of Georgia this spring and then turned pro, credits a new attitude for his improved results in multiple events (he just missed qualifying for worlds in the 200 butterfly). A perfectionist, he now accepts that he will have bad days as well as good. And he is more relaxed in practice, taking time to joke around with his teammates.

“I realize that I don’t need to be perfect every single time I jump in the water,” he said. “I’m striving to be, but I can move on with my life and not really let it be a burden on me. That’s overall made me enjoy the sport more, and I have a new appreciation.”

Fueled by his silver-medal performance in Rio, Kalisz is confident he can win the world title in the 400 IM in Budapest. With the 4:06.99 that he swam at nationals, he is currently ranked number one in the world in the event.

But the challenge of keeping the 200 IM title in American hands is more daunting. Either Phelps or Lochte have won the past seven 200 IM world titles.

In world rankings, Germany’s Philip Heintz is No. 1 after finishing a 200 IM in 1:55.76 in June. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, who won Olympic gold in the 400 IM in Rio, is ranked second (1:56.01), with China’s Wang Shun third (1:56.16).

All are well shy of Lochte’s world record (1:54.00).

Hagino and Shun finished second and third in Rio. Behind who else? Phelps.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Michael Phelps

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Caeleb Dressel

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