LOS ANGELES – Caeleb Dressel was omnipresent in the swimming world this year, and that again was the case Sunday at USA Swimming’s 16th annual Golden Goggle Awards.
Olympic ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, presenting the award for Male Race of the Year, drew laughs when they repeated his name four times among the five nominees, before ultimately naming the 23-year-old Olympian as the winner for his 100-meter butterfly semifinal race at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
In that race, he broke Michael Phelps' world record that had stood for 10 years.
“I’m really glad 50-meter freestyle Caeleb Dressel didn’t win that. I hate that guy,” Dressel quipped.
Dressel, up-and-comer Regan Smith and Olympic champion Simone Manuel stood out at the annual event, held this year at the JW Marriott at LA Live, with each taking home multiple awards. The event primarily celebrated swimmers’ success at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, where Americans brought home 30 total medals across pool and open water competitions.
At the Golden Goggles event swimming stars and attendees mingled with celebrities, athletes, business leaders and entertainment icons, and a silent and live auction helped raise thousands of dollars for the USA Swimming Foundation, which is dedicated to saving lives and building champions — in the pool and in life. A livestream of the red carpet and awards program is available on usaswimming.org.
Dressel led the nominations count, with five individual nominations. Fellow Olympic and world champion Katie Ledecky and Smith each had three nominations.
In addition to Male Race of the Year, Dressel won Male Athlete of the Year, a field in which he was the only nominee. At the 2019 world championships, Dressel was the first swimmer in history to win eight long-course world championships medals — a fact he later disputed, claiming he only earned 25 percent of the relay medals.
“It was a good year. There's always room for improvement, so I was happy with it — but certainly not satisfied,” Dressel told TeamUSA.org on the red carpet, wearing a black tux with red bow tie accent. “As a group, with Team USA, we can do much better next year. I think everyone's looking forward to it.”
In collecting his award for Race of the Year, Dressel turned serious, urging other swimmers to not compare their performances with others’.
“I’m just a kid from Green Cove (Florida) who has no business making it as far as I have,” he said.
While Dressel was no stranger to the stage, it was also a big night for 17-year-old Smith, who made a splash on the national and international scene this year with a breakthrough season, winning a pair of gold medals at the world championships, which included breaking the world record set by Missy Franklin in the 200-meter backstroke — a feat that earned her Female Race of the Year honors.
That performance also landed her the lead-off leg on the women’s 4x100-meter medley in Gwangju, even though she did not compete in that distance individually at the meet. On the relay, Smith set a world record for both her split time and the relay time. Later that week, she returned to the U.S. to compete in the national championships, where she won the 200-meter butterfly.
All together, those performances led to her winning Breakout Performer of the Year.
“I feel like I really just learned so much this past summer,” Smith said. “I feel like before this summer I was really just a little kid who had no idea what was going on in swimming … and kind of just enjoying the ride. And I still am. But I feel like after this summer, I have a new perspective in swimming.”
Smith also took home the award for Relay Performance of the Year, along with teammates Lilly King, Kelsi Dahlia and Manuel, for their win in the women’s 4x100-meter medley at the world championships. In addition, her coach Mike Parratto was named Coach of the Year.
Manuel also went on to win Female Athlete of the Year, for her seven world championship medals, a record among women at the event. Her performance included an American-record-setting 100-meter freestyle. From lane one, Manuel beat the current and previous world record holders in the final, and is the second woman to win the race at worlds more than once.
“When I first started swimming, it was pretty difficult for me — it still is difficult to this day,” she said. “But oftentimes I didn’t feel like I fit in or it wasn’t the sport for me. Oftentimes, people questioned why I was swimming, because I’m not supposed to swim. And that’s really difficult.
“I never thought that I would see the day where I would stand up here and receive this award. What I've learned through this journey — even though it's been very hard — is to follow your passion. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do anything. Work hard to all your dreams because anything is possible.”
While the night was about performances like those of Dressel, Smith and Manuel, it was also about comebacks, like that of Olympian Nathan Adrian, who anchored the 4x100-meter freestyle at the world championships seven months after his testicular cancer diagnosis. Adrian then went on to win an additional five medals — more than any American man — during his Pan American Games debut in Lima, Peru.
LA 2028 Chairman Casey Wasserman and Olympian Kaitlin Sandeno presented the Perseverance Award to Adrian. Sandeno won the award at the inaugural Golden Goggles 16 years ago.
Upon his acceptance, Adrian urged attendees to do two things: to “get your kids in swim lessons” and for male attendees to go see the doctor to get checked for cancer. He also sported a mustache for Movember to draw attention to the cause.
Among the team of people Adrian thanked included his wife Hallie, who “killed it” when it came to supporting him through a difficult diagnosis.
“It was just about three months after we vowed to be together in sickness and in health, and the sickness came faster than we ever anticipated,” he said.
Hillary Jackson is a writer based in Los Angeles, who has covered the last four Olympic Games for various media outlets. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.