Caeleb Dressel, swimming's reluctant star, is finding more joy as he heads to another Olympics

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Caeleb Dressel still seems a bit tortured by the trappings of Olympic stardom.

Even as he was claiming two victories at the U.S. swimming trials and setting himself up to collect another bounty of medals in Paris, Dressel was enduring some dark moments behind the scenes.

“It takes a lot of work, and there’s parts of this meet that I’ve had some very low lows,” he conceded. “There’s parts when I’m in my hotel room that are not on camera, talking to my wife, talking to my therapist. It has not been smooth sailing this whole meet. I know y’all get to see the smile, and I’m working on it. I’m trying to find those moments and really relish in them.”

After the Tokyo Games, where Dressel was one of the biggest stars, winning five gold medals, the weight of fame crashed down on him. In the middle of the 2022 world championships, he suddenly bolted without explanation. He stayed away from swimming for months, determined to do whatever it took to recapture the joy he once had at the pool.

It's admittedly a work in progress, but he's getting there.

“I would love if I could get back to the point where I was 5 years old,” Dressel mused. “Those honestly were some of the best days. Because it was simply swimming. That’s all that it was. You were just swimming.”

At 27, a new father whose face adorns a giant banner outside of Lucas Oil Stadium, Dressel knows that sort of simplicity is no longer possible. So, he's working to cope with the fame and all the demands on his time out of the water.

In his perfect world, he would do nothing more than hang out in Gainesville, Florida with his coach, Anthony Nesty, and a few of his best buddies, training and racing and pushing each other with no one else around.

“There’s things that I’ve put up with that I don’t like or things about the sport that I hate,” Dressel said. “There are things you have to learn to put up with just so you can stay in the sport. Man, if I could get back to the 10-year-old just simply swimming — but it won’t be that. That’s the hard part. I would love to get to that point, but I won’t.”

It didn’t help to be called the next Michael Phelps, a comparison that was impossible to live up to but proved to be an inescapable burden.

“I’m not Michael, at all, and I’m fine with admitting that. I struggled with it a little bit in the beginning, like, ‘Oh man, these comparisons don’t seem fair,'" Dressel said. “I used to have a little shame that I’m not Michael, I probably never will be Michael. I’m very proud of the things I have done in this sport and will continue to do, but there will never be another Michael."

Dressel failed to even qualify for the world championships a year ago, but his times have improved significantly since then.

He came into these Olympics trials looking to make the team in the same three individual events that he won in Tokyo. He came up just short in the 100-meter freestyle, finishing third, but touched first in the 50 free and 100 butterfly. Counting the relays, he could swim as many as five events in Paris — just one shy of the program he had three years ago.

There's still plenty of work to do between now and the Olympics. Dressel's times at trials were well off his winning performances in Tokyo. The rivals he'll be facing in Paris have been going faster than him. He'll have to shave off a few more tenths to have a shot at gold.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever go a best time ever again," he said. ”That’s tough to say out loud, it really is."

But Dressel is at his best when it's time to step on the blocks. There's a competitive fire that burns inside of him, that pushes him to get his hand on the wall ahead of everyone else.

“I’m really good at racing,” he said, a steely look in his eyes. “You put me in a race, I will make it close, as close as I possibly can, even if I have to try to kill myself to get there.”

The reluctant star did let his guard down during the trials.

He clearly relished the chance to hang with up-and-comers like Thomas Heilman, who made the Olympic team in two events at age 17. After going 1-2 in the 100 butterfly, they were giggling and yukking it up as they placed the medals around each other's necks during the victory ceremony.

Dressel also found himself throwing his arms in the air every time his name was announced for a race at the sprawling home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts — a common gesture that took him by surprise.

“I have never done that in my life,” Dressel said. “All of the sudden I’m like, ‘I’m kind of feeling this.’ Just the crowd, feeling the love from everybody, that’s something new. I thought, ‘All right, I guess we’re doing this.’”

The rest of the American team is thrilled to have Dressel back among them. His presence alone could mean an extra medal or two in Paris.

“Just to see his progression over this past year, how he’s just gotten better and better each meet,” said Katie Ledecky, who trains with Dressel at the University of Florida. “He seems to just be loving this racing, and he loves the training probably more than the racing. He makes everyone around him better.”

Adding to Dressel's joy is his wife, Meghan, and their first child, 4-month-old August Wilder. They were in the stands in Indy, cheering on Caeleb in every race.

“It’s really special for the rest of my life to be able to say that my son got to watch me make the Olympic team,” Dressel said. “He’s not going to remember it. It doesn’t matter.”

Dressel smiled at the thought.

This was a moment to relish.


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