IRVINE, Calif. – For Caeleb Dressel, signing contracts and charting his course as a professional swimmer was stressful.
Finally finishing his left arm tattoo was taxing.
But placing sixth in the 100-meter freestyle and second in the 50 butterfly in the first two days of the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships was nothing to worry about.
Dressel, who tied Michael Phelps by winning seven gold medals at last year’s world championship (including an unprecedented three on one night), returned to the top of the podium in the 100-meter butterfly Friday night.
He burst off the blocks with the fastest reaction time of .61 seconds, but was second at the turn behind Michael Andrew, the winner of the 50 fly. Dressel then poured it on, repeating as champion in the event by clocking 50.50 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year.
Jack Conger was second in 51.51 followed by Andrew in 51.68 as part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“I’ve been getting better throughout the meet,” said Dressel, who won two gold medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in relays. “I started off really rough – there’s no doubt about that. It was absolutely horrible. I wasn’t happy with my 50 fly and even the 100 fly, there’s so much left for me to improve so I’m excited.”
Most importantly, Dressel qualified for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo, which begin Aug. 9. Athletes can enter any event at the meet, although only two from each nation can make the final.
After winning his ninth NCAA individual title for the University of Florida in March and turning pro, Dressel had to find an agent and sign with a swimwear company.
“It’s very, very busy,” said Dressel, who still trains at Florida with coach Gregg Troy. “It’s a new adventure, as my dad says, so it’s something I’ve never done before. It was very busy – stressful. I hate to use that word because I feel like I managed my time very well. And I handle stress very well.
“I don’t want to say anything has changed, but it definitely affected me more than I know.”
And it could have accounted for his lackluster start here.
“It was surprising looking up and seeing sixth and being 48.5 (in the 100 free),” Dressel said. “It was just a bad swim. You can’t avoid it in the sport. I’ve had a couple of good meets back-to-back so it’s kind of refreshing to have just a really bad swim."
Well, that’s one way to look at it. He said he took it in stride and is looking forward to a day off before the 50 freestyle on Sunday.
“I do enjoy the pressure,” Dressel said. “I understand what comes with the sport. It makes it fun and exciting. I know how much is on the line…and I didn’t want to crumble under that.
“We’ll worry about Pan Pacs when we get there. There’s a lot left in the tank for me, as you can see.”
After his breakout performance at worlds, Dressel is being touted as one of the top stars for Team USA at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
He could pad his medal total in the new mixed medley relay, which wasn’t on the Olympic program when Phelps was competing.
“I think your goals should be pretty ridiculous,” Dressel said. I think you should set them high. There should be a fine line between laugh out loud at them and setting something that is actually possible.
“The main thing is just to stay hungry. There’s a target on your back.”
There’s much more than that tattooed on his left arm. Dressel had an eagle, a bear and a gator, and has finally finished his full sleeve.
“After about two years I finally am done,” he said.
On the inside of his arm, he added a little Native American dagger and some magnolia blossoms and some fill work to tie everything together.
“I’m over it anyways,” Dressel said. “Those tattoo appointments are not fun.”
On his right arm, he has only the Olympic rings and doesn’t expect to add anything.
He said each session lasts about three hours. Dressel, who has had some tattoos removed and replaced, finished with back-to-back appointments about a month ago. Even though he was supposed to stay out of the pool for a week after the needle work, he had each session Saturday before his off day on Sunday and then was back in training.
“Risky, because it could have gotten infected,” Dressel said, “but I’m done now so I avoided the disaster.
“It was brutal, but it was worth it.”