Caeleb Dressel poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot in November 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
At 24, Caeleb Dressel isn’t old by any definition, not for any regular person and not even for an Olympic swimmer. He just simply isn’t the 15-year-old wunderkind he was at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Instead, he’s at his peak.
Expected to swim in six or seven events in Tokyo, Dressel could become just the fourth swimmer in history to win seven medals in a single Olympic Games. The others are no less than legends of Team USA: Matt Biondi, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz. With Phelps five years into retirement, it’s Dressel’s time to shine, even if he’d prefer to stay in the shadows.
“I don’t very much care for the spotlight,” Dressel told NBC Sports before the 2021 Olympic trials.
He’s already been shining for years, of course, making his Olympic debut in Rio with two gold medals in relays. In the years since, Dressel has already shown he can win seven or more medals in international competition, doing so at the 2017 and 2019 world championships. Dressel’s eight medals in 2019 were an all-time record and his six gold medals moved him into third place in worlds history behind Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
“Part of me is very happy,” Dressel told USA Today at the time. “Part of me wants to cry that I'm done with it. I've got pimples on my face from just the stress of the meet. I'm probably losing some hair. It was a very tough week. I knew I was going to have to come with fire, passion and pride in every single race.”
Like the rest of the world, Dressel was mostly out of action in 2020, but picked up where he had left off at June’s Olympic trials. Dressel qualified in the 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle. The 50 free title came on the last night of competition, and Dressel tied his own American record of 21.04 seconds that he set at the 2019 world championships.
“There’s only so much you can think about a race that lasts 21 seconds,” Dressel told TeamUSA.org afterwards. “I knew that I had a chance to be 21-low — a good race is what I thought I saw on the board. So, I’m really happy with that, I thought I held stroke together pretty well, I got a little choppy in the middle of the pool, but the beginning and end were as good as they could have been.”
For the man who shies away from the spotlight, it was a result to be proud of, but there is more work to be done.
“This was anything but an easy year, especially with this being the first real meet, it’s brutal,” Dressel continued. “But I’m really proud of myself, I don’t think there’s no shame in saying that.
“I understand people’s interest in my career, but for me, it’s just about swimming faster — that’s what I like to do. I like to look for ways to get better, I like the challenges that the sport brings. So, I’m going to have that in a month (at Tokyo) in the water.”
Dressel will also head into Tokyo having had some major life changes over the past year. He got married in February to the former Meghan Haila, and the couple stayed sane during the pandemic in part by hiking the Appalachian Trail. More than good exercise, Dressel said on his podcast “The Ben and Caeleb Show” that it was a life-changing experience.
“I feel like I learned a lot more about myself, my family and everything going on around me more on the trail than I did with the Olympic Games,” Dressel said.
Dressel also stays busy operating a popular YouTube channel with analysis of his past swims. In a good place personally and professionally, Dressel was named as a captain of the U.S. swim team alongside Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Ryan Murphy and Allison Schmitt. All that’s left is to go get the medals.
“The work has been done,” Dressel posted on Instagram just ahead of the Olympic trials. “Time to get in the water.”