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Caeleb Dressel on the precipice of becoming the next Michael Phelps

Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning the men's 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on June 20.
Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning the men’s 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on June 20. Dressel is a favorite to win multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

An alligator searching for prey with mouth open and teeth bared lurks in a tattoo on Caeleb Dressel’s left forearm, giving way to a bear inked on his upper arm and an eagle sprawled across his shoulder, chest and back.

The swimmer’s trademark sleeve of tattoos — the work includes oranges from his native Florida and an American flag — is as constant as the expectations that will stalk him at the Summer Olympics.

In the first Games for the U.S. without Michael Phelps since 1996, Dressel is positioned as the natural successor to the most decorated Olympian of all time.

A Tokyo Games mired in controversy could cast the Olympic movement into a void that could have consequences that reach all the way to Los Angeles.

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“Michael changed the sport of swimming,” said Keenan Robinson, Phelps’ longtime strength and conditioning coach who directs sports medicine and science for USA Swimming. “Caeleb is really bringing something different to the sport. He’s such an amazing athlete. You watch him lift weights and you say, ‘Dude, I wish I could do that.’”

When the nine-day swimming competition starts Saturday at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, Phelps will contribute color commentary and features to NBC.

Meanwhile, Dressel is the top seed in three individual events — the 50-meter freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly — and could swim on four relays. That adds up to a potential Phelps-like haul of medals for the swimmer who was just 4 years old when the legend competed in his first Olympics.

“I don’t think that falls on my shoulders alone,” Dressel said of succeeding Phelps. “Michael was one guy within USA Swimming, but he wasn’t USA Swimming. … I don’t think it was Michael alone and it’s certainly not myself alone.”

Some of the similarities between them are obvious. Both have chiseled, rangy frames with wide wingspans — Dressel is 76 inches and Phelps is 80 inches. But what sets them apart from the rest of the world runs deeper.

Michael Phelps, front, and Caeleb Dressel celebrate after winning gold for the U.S. in the men's 4X100 freestyle relay.
Michael Phelps, front, and Caeleb Dressel celebrate after winning gold for the U.S. in the men’s 4X100 freestyle relay at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
(Clive Rose / Getty Images)

“He never backs down, this kid,” said Ryan Lochte, the four-time Olympian who trains with Dressel at the Gator Swim Club in Gainesville, Fla. “It’s amazing to see what he does in the pool. He’s smart and that’s what Phelps was.”

This is the path Dressel has been on since earning two gold medals at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 — both on relays — in the shadow of Phelps. Dressel followed with seven gold medals at the world championships in 2017, then a record eight medals — six of them gold — at worlds in 2019. During that meet in Gwangju, South Korea, he broke Phelps’ decade-old world record in the 100 butterfly.

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Competing for the Cali Condors in the International Swimming League’s Grand Final in November, Dressel set three world records in a two-day span.

That’s the kind of electricity the 24-year-old brings each time he steps into the starting blocks. There’s a sense the race isn’t one to be missed, another world record might fall, something special could happen.

“When I watch Caeleb, there’s kind of a violence to the way he swims above water, but a grace and efficiency and beauty to the way he swims underwater,” said Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s national team performance manager. “The violence above water is a high tempo. … And underwater, he uses whole body, an amazing, elegant motion.”

Caeleb Dressel participates in the men's 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic trials on June 19.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
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Mark called Dressel an “athletic phenom.”

Lee Sommers, who trained five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky before Rio, described him as a “freak of nature.”

The dominance comes during a time of transition for the U.S. men. Phelps retired after Rio. Longtime standouts such as Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin, Matt Grevers and Lochte didn’t make the team. Together they combined for 58 Olympic medals. Some stars such as Ryan Murphy remain. But much of the team is young and untested on the sport’s biggest stage.

Much like the unchanging expressions of the creatures covering Dressel’s left arm, he is unflinching in the face of the mounting attention, the television commercials, the link to Phelps, the lofty predictions.

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“It’s never been my goal in the sport to aim for a bigger spotlight,” Dressel said. “If it was up to me, I just want to swim. I want to swim fast. I want to learn from the sport. I want to keep chasing those challenges that the sport offers day-in and day-out. … I’m not worried about the spotlight. I don’t very much care for the spotlight.

That’s not why I’m doing it.”

The low-key attitude isn’t an act. He doesn’t care about the expectations, much less allow himself to be weighed down by them. He pursues the sport and life on his own terms.

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“Caeleb is one of the purest people I know,” said True Sweetser, who trained with him. “He knows exactly what he needs to do to be a good swimmer and to be an upstanding guy and he works every day to do just that. … He’s really structured his life around being the best he can be and that’s not just in swimming.”

Dressel’s daily self-improvement habits include reading at least 10 pages from a worthwhile book, picking up trash and journaling. He’s a crack shot (rifle, pistol and bow), plays the drums, enjoys Waffle House, posts videos on YouTube and was married in February.

There’s an exuberance, an energy behind it all.

“There’s nothing I really need right now at this point in my life,” Dressel said. “I’m happy with what I’m doing. The next thing I need is the next obstacle, the next challenge. I’ll be happy with that.”

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After winning the 100 freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., last month, Dressel hoisted himself up on the lane line and thrust his arms in the air. This is typical. He flexed, pounded the water and shouted in a whirl of tattoos and water and joy.

The Tokyo Olympics are officially set to begin Friday with the opening ceremony. Here’s how to watch and stream NBC’s coverage of the event.


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