Caeleb Dressel celebrates after winning the gold medal the Men's 100m Freestyle on July 29, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — This is supposed to be Caeleb Dressel’s Olympic Games, the one where he becomes one of the next Team USA standard bearers after Michael Phelps’s retirement. With his first individual race, Dressel began to cement his legacy in Olympic Swimming.
In the men’s 100-meter freestyle, Dressel delivered. The 24-year-old sprinter brought home gold — his first individual medal and one of five medals for Team USA on the sixth day of swimming at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Dressel led the stacked field from start to finish, beating rival Kyle Chalmers from Australia, 47.02 to 47.08, with the Russian Olympic Committee’s Kliment Kolenikov in third. Chalmers, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free, is back from shoulder surgery and still swims in pain. Kolenikov is the 2020 European champion in the 100 freestyle.
Swimming in lane five, Dressel was aware of Chalmers in lane seven the whole race.
“I could actually see him in my peripherals, I knew he was right there,” said the American. “I couldn't see him, but you can see disturbances in the water, and who else would it be besides Kyle, of course?”
This is Dressel’s fourth Olympic gold medal and first in an individual event. He won two relay golds at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and added a third on Monday when he led off the winning men’s 4x100 freestyle relay. Dressel began competing 13 years ago after watching the iconic men’s 4x100 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympic Games, where Jason Lezak pulled the U.S. into gold-medal position in the anchor leg.
When asked if this gold medal is different than his relay golds, Dressel said yes.
“It is a lot of different, it is,” he said. “I didn't know. I guess I thought it would be, I just didn't want to admit to it. It's a lot tougher. You can only rely on yourself. There's no one to bail you out or give a bad split. So it’s a lot different.”
Dressel has been gunning for the 100 freestyle world record — 46.91 set by Brazil’s Cesar Cielo in 2009 during the textile swimsuit era. But with training interrupted worldwide by the pandemic, swimmers have, so far, set fewer world records here than at previous Olympic Games.
“I thought I executed well,” Dressel said of his race. “I would have liked to have been out a little bit faster. But I'm happy with seven-o [47.0]. I would have liked to have gone a little bit faster than my PR. But these moments are a lot different than Worlds. I mean, the Olympics has a lot different feel.”
Dressel’s PR (personal record) in the 100 freestyle is 46.96, set at the 2019 world championships.
Seemingly impervious to the pressure that many other athletes have faced at these Olympic Games, Dressel tends to keep to himself at big meets.
“I'm a weirdo,” he joked.
His emotions are near the surface, and he cries easily. So he has steered clear of talking to his wife and family back home to save emotional energy for his races.
But he confessed that the Olympic pressure has affected him this week; he is just “pretty good at putting a face on.”
“Pressure is fine,” he said. “It’s when that pressure, when you turn it into stress, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
His first couple of races at the Tokyo Games, he was stressed but finally felt more relaxed by last night’s 100 freestyle semifinal.
So far, Dressel has competed in two of his six events at these Olympic Games. His program is heavily weighted in the last few days of the meet, and he is favored to win gold in his next four races — 100-meter butterfly, 50 freestyle, men’s 4x100 medley relay, and the mixed medley relay (a new Olympic event).
He has also drawn motivation from watching his U.S. teammates win medals this week, especially other swimmers from his alma mater, the University of Florida.
“Watching Bobby [Finke] win the 800 freestyle this morning, we went to the same college, I’m training in the same city as the kid,” Dressel said. “It’s really special. I was almost crying for him.”