Caeleb Dressel celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 100-meter butterfly at the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships on July 29, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.
BUDAPEST, Hungary – Caeleb Dressel hit the swimming trifecta at the FINA World Championships in under two hours Saturday night.
That makes him the odds-on favorite to be the next big star in U.S. swimming.
Dressel won the men’s 50-meter freestyle in American-record time, the men’s 100-meter butterfly and swam the lead-off leg on the world-record-setting mixed 4x100-meter freestyle, which is not an Olympic event, but if it were, Team USA would own it.
“I had to be on my A game for all of them,” said Dressel, who won two relay gold medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. “It wasn’t an accident what happened tonight. I work well with (University of Florida coach Gregg) Troy. We were ready for it. It was very hard; it definitely wasn’t easy.”
He just made it look that way.
Dressel now has six gold medals at the 2017 worlds – more than Katie Ledecky, who won five golds and a silver – and he should add a seventh gold in the men’s 4x100-meter relay Sunday. Though he is expected to swim the butterfly leg, Dressell said of his assignment, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
His agenda was well-known Saturday night at Danube Arena.
The 50-meter freestyle went off at 5:39 p.m., then the men’s 100-meter butterfly at 6:13 p.m. and the victory ceremony for the 50 free at 6:21.
Before Dressel could swim lead-off on the mixed 4x100-meter freestyle at 7:17 p.m, he had to get out of the warmup pool early for the medal ceremony for the 100 fly at 7:10 p.m.
“I think I only had to run twice,” Dressel said with a laugh. “Tonight was pretty busy. It’s physically challenging and mentally straining and takes a lot of emotional energy. If I get too caught up after the 50, tonight could end up a disaster.”
In the race known as the “Splash and Dash,” it was splash, dash and smash for Dressel, who lowered his own American record significantly.
Dressel’s winning time in the 50 free was 21.15 seconds, .14 under the American record he set in the semifinals on Friday. Bruno Fratus of Brazil won the silver in 21.27 and Benjamin Proud of Great Britain was third, clocking 21.43. Dressel is now the third-fastest performer in history -- and only American in the Top 10 -- behind Cesar Cielo of Brazil (20.91) and Fred Bousquet of France (20.94). And they did it in suits that are now banned for being performance enhancing.
Dressel was the first Team USA swimmer to win the 50 free at the World Championships since Ben Wildman-Tobriner in 2007. Anthony Ervin won Olympic title in Rio, giving the U.S. back-to-back wins. After he touched the wall in the 50 free, Dressel smiled, then hoisted himself up to sit on the lane rope, where he punched the water with both hands.
Dressel then came back about 30 minutes later to win the 100 fly, clocking a personal best of 49.86 seconds, which was a whopping .23 under his personal best set in the semis. He just missed the world record of 49.82 posted by none other than Michael Phelps at the 2009 worlds.
When he saw the scoreboard, he smiled wider, and after climbing atop the lane rope he punched the water three times.
Dressel is now the second-fastest performer in history, pulling ahead of Milorad Cavic of Serbia (49.95), the only other man under 50 seconds.
“Being that close to something, it’s almost like I can taste it a bit,” Dressel said of the tantalizingly close world record.
He said he didn’t think he was that close to a breakthrough in the butterfly, especially since “I say I don’t consider myself a flyer.
“It’s humbling to be that close to a couple of the records. It’s nice to stay hungry. I’m excited for the future.”
Team USA had not won a medal of any kind in the 100 fly since Phelps captured the gold in 2011 and Tyler McGill claimed the bronze.
Kristof Milak delighted the Hungarian fans by placing second in 50.62 seconds, while Olympic champion Joseph Schooling of Singapore – who knocked off Phelps in Rio – tied for third with Great Britain’s James Guy at 50.83 seconds.
In the relay, Dressel posted a split of 47.22, just .05 off the American record he set in winning the 100 free earlier this week, to get Team USA on world record pace from the get-go. Granted, this event has only been raced once before – at the 2015 worlds in Kazan -- and Team USA won.
Dressel, Nathan Adrian, Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel posted a time of 3:19.60, shattering the previous record of 3:23.05. The Netherlands also came in under the old world mark at 3:21.81, followed by Canada at 3:23.55.
After Dressel gave Team USA the lead, Adrian came in at 47.49, then Mallory Comerford swam 52.71 and newly-minted world champion Simone Manuel anchored in 52.18. All eight countries went male-male-female-female for their order.
This time, Dressel had people to celebrate with on the pool deck.
“It’s incredible, man,” said Adrian. “It’s something that I certainly couldn’t even come close to doing. He’s trained very hard for that and deserved it.”
If he wins seven golds – and Team USA has never lost a men’s medley relay at worlds, he would be the only man to win seven golds at one meet other than Phelps and a fellow named Mark Spitz.
“I have mixed relays helping me out,” said Dressel, referring to the male/female relays that weren’t around in Phelps’ time, much less Spitz’s, “so I think it’s a bit different situation. I wouldn’t put myself with that group yet. I’m still getting my feet wet in international swimming, but it’d be an honor, even with the help of mixed relays. And I’m just having fun doing it.
“There’s a lot of up-and-coming stars in USA swimming and I don’t think that can be put on one individual. We have a lot of young guys, plenty of talent in USA swimming to go around. It’s not just me.”
While he recognizes that comparisons to Phelps are “probably inevitable,” he said, “I don’t know if I welcome them” given the pressure they bring.
“I don’t want to be compared to Michael,” Dressel said.”I love Michael. My first time being on a team with him was Rio. He’s a great guy. I love him to death. He texted me this meet just saying ‘Good job.’ Heckuva guy, heckuva leader. I just want to keep doing my own thing.”
But could doing what he’s doing make the 20-year-old from Green Cove Springs, Florida, the next great American sprinter?
“He’s got some real good abilities,” said Troy. “I don’t know if I would label anyone the next great one, but he’s real good right now and I think it’s limitless what he can do.”
At 6-foot-2, Dressel is not particularly tall – especially compared to Adrian, who is 6-foot-5. “He’s not big,” said Troy, “but he’s got some great natural skills, real good quickness. He’s very coachable. He’s getting stronger and better all the time.”
Troy said Dressel is equally good at freestyle and butterfly, but that his butterfly mechanics are more solid.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with either one,” Troy said. “I just think the fly comes very, very natural to him. He’s got some good natural speed, so it shows up first in the 50 and the 100 freestyle, but the more I work with him, the more I see him getting good at a whole lot of different things.”
Troy also said Dressel is low key and very low maintenance. “He’s an extrovert,” Troy said. “He really gets along with people well. He kind of is his own guy.”
He’s already a natural with the media. Dressel actually thanked reporters for waiting for him because the scheduled press conferences obviously had to be delayed because he just kept swimming all night.
Dressel is only the fourth man – joining Alexander Popov of Russia (1994 and 2003), Anthony Ervin of Team USA (2001) and Cesar Cielo of Brazil (2009) to win both the 50 and 100 freestyles in the same year.
He is also the first man to win the 100 free and the 100 fly at the same worlds. Of course, that makes him the first man to win all three.
Dressel comes off the blocks in the lead, and reinforces his terrific start with a powerful stroke that makes his head pop to the surface in the lead.
Adrian said Dressel has the best start in the world, and has been one of the best starters since high school.
“Have you seen how high he jumps?” Adrian said. “It’s something that he’s obviously very gifted at and he has worked to develop that gift of his and it’s working out.”
Dressel, who credits Olympic lifting during strength training for his start, has switched between freestyle and butterfly all week. He broke the American record swimming lead-off in the 4x100-meter freestyle, which won gold, then placed fourth in the 50-meter fly. Dressel came back to swim the butterfly leg on the winning mixed 4x100-meter medley, then broke his own American record in winning the 100-meter freestyle, with Adrian taking the silver.
His teammates watched him with a mixture of awe and admiration.
“He’s incredible,” said Ledecky. “He’s such a great athlete, and just the way he goes about his racing is really impressive. He’s really fired up Team USA with his performances in the water this week.”
Adrian said Dressel’s performance is “ not unexpected by anybody who’s followed Caeleb in his trajectory the last number of years. The sky is absolutely the limit. You get a glimpse of what he’s capable of this meet and then moving on.”
“Caeleb’s something else,” added Chase Kalisz. “He’s going to continue to be a star and he’s only getting started.”
Dressel was already a star in high school when the pressure of meeting expectations made him decide to stop swimming his senior year.
“During those six months, I didn’t touch water,” he said. “I didn’t even think about touching water.”
But Dressel came back to the sport in time for college and has been juggling school and the pool ever since.
“I have a math test in two days,” he said.
Studying for the algebra exam has been a challenge.
“I’ve tried,” Dressel said. “I’ve been busy.”