One of Caeleb Dressel’s goals over the past week was to tell himself swimming at the Olympics was no different than being at the world championships. Perhaps he thought that would make the grueling and ambitious schedule he had set for himself seem less like climbing Mount Fuji in a snowstorm.
Dressel ultimately failed in that endeavor — the Olympics are the Olympics after all — but made it to the summit all the same. The American is on top of the swimming world, and the five gold medals he’s taking away from the Tokyo Olympics are proof.
Dressel won the final two on Sunday, setting an Olympic record of 21.07 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle in the first race of the day and wrapping up the swimming competition at these Olympics by helping the U.S. set a world record in the 4×100-meter medley relay with a time of 3 minutes, 26.78 seconds at Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
“To end the meet with that relay, it’s really, really special,” Dressel said.
Now that his Games are over, Dressel can let his guard down and begin to take in the enormity of what he accomplished.
“I tried to convince myself that worlds was the same, and it’s the same competition,” Dressel said. “But it is a lot different here, it’s a different type of pressure. I’m very aware of that now, and I’ll stop lying to myself. It means something different. For an event that happens every four years, for a race that happens 40-something seconds or 20-something seconds, you have to be so perfect in that moment.
“There’s so much pressure in one moment. Your whole life boils down to a moment that can take 20, 40 seconds. How crazy is that?
“I wouldn’t tell myself this during the meet, but after — looking back — I mean, it’s terrifying. It’s really fun, though, if you can look at it with a different perspective. So there’s a lot that boils down to a very precise moment in time in the universe.”
Dressel became the fifth swimmer to win at least five gold medals during a single Olympics and now has seven overall.
He swam six events in Tokyo — only failing to medal in the mixed 4×100 medley relay — in a schedule that was back-loaded and meant he would have to do a lot of swimming in a compressed amount of time when factoring in prelims and finals.
Dressel swam three races on Saturday, including the 100-meter butterfly, in which he set a world record of 49.45 seconds, before coming back for two more on Sunday.
In addition to the records he set, or helped set, over the weekend, Dressel rewrote the Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle on Thursday, finishing in 47.02.
He started his meet by helping the U.S win the 4×100-meter freestyle relay on July 26, one of the few races he swam where a record did not fall.
“This is a really hard meet,” teammate Ryan Murphy said. “You need to be at the top of your game and Caeleb did that. He was right on his best times, he went best time, in every single race. He was right there or better.
“That’s just so impressive. To come in here, with all the pressure, he had a lot on his shoulders, and he handled it great.”
Dressel stressed what he achieved did not come easy. He swam a schedule that was not for the faint of heart, even among world-class athletes.
The waves of relief and fatigue began to roll off once he was done and finally able to lower his focus.
“I can put a pretty good show on before each race, but once I shut it off, it floods out,” Dressel said of his emotions. “It was relief. This was not easy, it was not an easy week at all.”
At one point, he leaned on a teammate as everything began to catch up to him.
“I’ve seen him sacrifice his body at the end of a lot of races, especially at the end of these meets,” teammate Zach Apple said. “It’s impossible to put into words how hard a schedule like Caeleb’s is, especially with doubles and triples in a session.
“So he just kind of fell on me a little bit over there in the mixed zone and I didn’t really say anything specific, just ‘We did it. We’re done. We’re going home tomorrow, so let’s enjoy this moment.”
Dressel didn’t mince words when reflecting on his grueling Games.
“I was nervous before races, every race was not perfect by any means, every ready room approach wasn’t perfect. Every morning I’d wake up, the first words out of my mouth weren’t ‘Oh I’m so excited.’ Sometimes it was, ‘This is gonna suck today.’”
For Dressel, the sacrifice was worth it. The price for all the wins and everything that comes with them has to be paid in the form of stress on both the body and the mind. Dressel spent as much as he could of both at these Games and will take more than medals back to the U.S.
“It’s not about the medals,” Dressel said. “Nothing comes of that if you don’t learn anything from moments like this. I feel like I can walk away from this meet a better swimmer, not because of the hardware I’m bringing home, because of what I learned. I can be proud of every swim, every effort I put in the water. Every mental approach to every single race, I can be proud of that.”
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