Caeleb Dressel at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Caeleb Dressel joined elite company.
The 24-year-old swimmer won five Olympic gold medals in Tokyo, a feat that only 10 other Olympians have accomplished, including swimmers Michael Phelps, Matt Biondi, and Mark Spitz. Historic figures on the list include Finnish running legend Paavo Nurmi, who won five Olympic gold medals on the track in 1924, American Anton Heida who claimed five golds in gymnastics at the 1904 Games, and Eric Heiden, who famously speed-skated to five Olympic gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
But don’t look for Dressel to flaunt his accomplishments. He is a humble champion who shies away from the spotlight — confessing after he won the 100-meter butterfly in world record time that “the sport was a lot more fun when no one knew my name.”
In the Catch-22 of celebrity, Dressel’s humility and honesty will likely have the opposite effect, making him an even bigger champion.
Dressel made his Olympic debut in Rio five years ago. Back then, he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Florida, an up-and-coming sprinter who qualified for his first Olympic Games in the 100-meter freestyle. At the 2016 Rio Games, he finished sixth in the 100 freestyle, then won two Olympic gold medals as part of the men’s 4x100 freestyle and medley relays.
“I was still a teenager in that moment,” Dressel said of his Rio experience. “I wasn't necessarily happy with how I did. And I knew the next go around, I wanted to achieve a lot more than just being a relay swimmer.”
A year later, he dominated at the 2017 world championships, winning an astonishing seven gold medals. People started calling him the next Michael Phelps — a comparison Dressel refuses to acknowledge because it’s not fair to Phelps.
Dressel almost matched that feat at 2019 worlds, claiming six world titles and finishing as runner-up with the U.S. men in two relays.
With the Tokyo Games on the radar, Dressel deflected questions about his growing celebrity. His goal, he said, was not to accrue a war chest of medals. It was simply to reach his potential.
He is also quick to deflect praise onto his teammates and competitors.