INDIANAPOLIS — It was a field of eight men, the Goliaths of freestyle sprinting. Among them, they had 13 Olympic gold medals and 19 Olympic medals total.
Who would win the men’s 50-meter freestyle title at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships? The meet is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
Would 2000 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Tony Ervin or 2012 Olympic silver medalist Cullen Jones prove that age is no factor? The oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic gold medal, Ervin is now 36. Jones is 33.
Or would 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Nathan Adrian take his seventh national title in the 50 free? He has won every national title but two since 2009. In 2012, Jones was the winner; in 2014, Ervin was the fastest.
Or would 20-year-old Caeleb Dressel seize the title from the old guard? The University of Florida senior won two gold medals in Rio representing Team USA in two relays. And he was storming his way through 2017 nationals.
In the end, youth trumped experience.
Using a pounding kick, Dressel took command of the race as soon as he surfaced from his dive. He finished in 21.53, the third fastest time in the world this year.
Adrian came in second in 21.87. Cullen came in third, with Ervin in sixth.
“It feels good, especially with good company,” said Dressel, when asked how it felt to win his first 50 freestyle title. “There were a lot of really fast guys in that heat. It feels nice. I think I tied my best time.”
The win felt especially nice coming a year after Dressel, known for his freestyle sprinting, failed to qualify for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in the 50 free. He finished fourth behind Adrian, Ervin, and Jones in the 50 free at Olympic Trials last year.
“I’ve had nightmares about that race, it really bugged me, not making the team in that [50 free],” he admitted.
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He realized that he had not had enough rest during 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and it’s something he has learned about himself in the past year.
“I think we hit this one on the head,” he said. “I work well with a lot of rest.”
Adrian was also happy to qualify for the 50 free at worlds. But he was not happy with his time. This year, he said, has been “about information” — trying to find new ways to train that will make him better. He trains at the University of California-Berkeley and has the autonomy to try techniques that he thinks might help him improve.
“What’s going to happen in the next three weeks?” he postulated. “What physiological changes are going to happen with some more rest? TBD, I don’t know. And that’s what the year that’s not the Olympics is about. It’s about figuring out what we can do to make sure that our Olympic year is successful.”
For Dressel, this meet showed his expanding versatility in the pool. He beat Jones for the 50-meter butterfly crown on Wednesday night, his first national title. Then he won the 100 butterfly title the next night, filling a void left by Michael Phelps.
And he finished second to Adrian in the 100 free, locking up a spot in that event at world championships. At the end of the meet, Dressel was presented with the Kiphuth Award for high point scorer at nationals.
At the world championships in Budapest next month, Dressel will also compete at least two relays: 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle (after he finished sixth in the 200 free at nationals). Mixed relays are also on the world championship schedule. He could win as many as eight medals.
Like he does at all swim meets, Dressel will take it one race at a time.
Although he qualified to represent Team USA in more events than any other male swimmer, Dressel would not take the credit for his performance.
“The credit goes to my coaches, my teammates, and God given ability,” he said. “My parents did a great job in just helping me so much through the sport, and it’s so nice seeing them in the stands. But I really can’t take credit for it. It’s my teammates pushing me in practice and just focusing on what I came here to do.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.