Caeleb Dressel battles through nerves and emotion to win five golds in Tokyo

Caeleb Dressel celebrates after winning the men's 50-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
U.S. swimmer Caeleb Dressel celebrates after winning the men’s 50-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

A few minutes before Caeleb Dressel ambled out of the ready room, an up-tempo song pounded through the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

“This is my time now,” the urgent words from 7kingZ said. “It’s all on the line now. Destiny is mine now.”

The lyrics were prophetic.

After a week in which Dressel fought off nerves, set a world record and shed tears as he reinforced his place as the world’s preeminent male swimmer, what the 24-year-old did Sunday might have been the most impressive feat of all.


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Dressel crushed the field in the 50-meter freestyle to win his third individual gold medal, then returned to the pool a little over an hour later to help the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay upset Britain and break the world record on the final day of the swimming competition at the Summer Games.

The victories gave Dressel five gold medals — Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz are the only men’s swimmers to have collected more golds during a single Olympics — as he became the first man to capture the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly in the same Games.

“It’s not my goal to beat anybody in particular, it’s about achieving what I think my potential is,” Dressel said. “My goal is not to be Michael. It’s not to be Mark.”

Though Dressel entered the nine-day competition positioned as the natural successor to Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time who is retired, the weighty expectations didn’t faze him.

“He had a lot on his shoulders,” teammate Ryan Murphy said.

U.S. swimmer Caeleb Dressel finished with five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Associated Press)

Dressel did things his way as Phelps provided color commentary for NBC.

He sobbed when speaking to his family at a watch party in Florida after winning the 100 butterfly. He journaled about what could be learned from each of his races. He acknowledged being tired and nervous while swimming three races in one packed morning.

He showed characteristic self-awareness and vulnerability each day — the unusual athlete who is willing to admit weakness and speak honestly about whatever is on his mind — while remaining a fearsome opponent in the pool.

That was never clearer than Sunday.

The 50 freestyle — better known in swimming circles as the splash and dash — is usually one of the tightest events in the sport. It’s a nail-biting whirl of speed and water where the eight competitors don’t breathe until they touch the wall. The difference between victory and defeat could be a hundredth of a second.

“There’s so much pressure in one moment,” Dressel said. “Your whole life boils down to a moment that could take 20 or 21 seconds.”

He is different, from the instant his 6-foot-3 frame launched from the starting block with the start that’s regarded as one of the best in the world, to each stroke as his 76-inch wingspan ripped through the water, to the enormous lead that his long arms never relinquished.

Dressel finished in 21.07 seconds, a staggering 0.48 seconds ahead of France’s second-place Florent Manaudou, to set an Olympic record. Winning by a tenth of a second would be an impressive accomplishment. Almost a half-second is an eternity.

It was the largest margin of victory in the event in Olympic history.

While Dressel received the gold medal and rested, teammate Bobby Finke delivered another blazing finish.
Earlier in the meet, the 21-year-old swam a memorable final lap to record a surprising come-from-behind victory in the 800 meters and give the U.S. its first distance gold since 1984. Finke did the same thing in the 1,500 freestyle event, waiting until the final lap to pull in front and take another gold. He split 25.78 seconds in the final lap, about two seconds better than his second-best split which came in the race’s first 50 meters.

About an hour after the 50 freestyle, Dressel joined teammates Michael Andrew, Zach Apple and Murphy to end the meet in the 400 medley relay with more history.

U.S. swimmer Bobby Finke competes in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle Sunday.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

The quartet finished in 3:26.78 to upset Britain’s favored team and break the world record the U.S. set in 2009.

Dressel’s destiny had arrived. He had stopped being seen as the next Michael Phelps at some point during the flurry of gold medals.


He instead established himself as the first Caeleb Dressel.