TOKYO — Once and for all, can we, all together, simply take in the transcendent greatness of a Caeleb Dressel without insisting that he be someone else?
He’s not Michael Phelps.
He’s not trying to be Phelps.
Unequivocally, indisputably, Dressel is, and here is that word again, great. On Saturday at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, he put on one of the virtuoso performances in Olympic history, even if because one was a loss it won’t be largely understood that way.
Moreover, he uncharacteristically felt nervous and a little tired before his first race, the 100 butterfly. “The sport is really not that easy,” he said. “It’s OK to be honest with yourself. To be real with yourself. Does that mean I can’t swim fast? No. It just means it’s always going to be more hard-earned.”
Dressel won that 100 fly in world-record time; he dashed from the victory ceremony for that race to confidently emerge as the No. 1 qualifier from the two 50-free semifinals in 21.42; and then, about 40 minutes later, in the Olympic debut of the 4x100 mixed medley relay, swam the anchor leg, the favorite Brits winning decisively.
It didn’t help that women’s 100 breaststroke champ Lydia Jacobs, the 17-year-old from Alaska, a relay rookie, had her goggles flop off her eyes as she dove in. Truthfully, it would not have mattered. The British were way too strong, finishing in a world-record 3:37.58. China took second, 1.28 back. Australia got third, 1.37 behind. When Dressel dove in, the Americans were seventh; he brought them to fifth.
“There were better teams than us,” Dressel said, adding, “It stings but I have to be OK with it.”
In a way, that medley leg may have been Dressel’s most impressive swim of the day, 46.99 for his anchoring 100 free.
Which is saying something.
Because what he put down was an Olympic triple, three swims in 80 minutes. And to go 46.99 in the last of the three?
“So impressive what he did tonight, three races,” Katie Ledecky said.
Phelps never did that sort of Olympic triple.
No question Dressel is the best male sprinter in 2021 on Planet Earth.
He has been the best male sprinter in the world now for four years, since his breakout performance at the 2017 world championships in Budapest, where he won seven gold medals, and a record eight gold medals, including six gold, at the 2019 worlds in South Korea.
The 50 free final that awaits Sunday is the farthest thing from a lock — it’s 21 seconds of violence that typically ends in hundredths of a second deciding first from second. As Saturday proved, no relay is ever a lock — consider, too, the men’s 4x2 free, in which the U.S. did not medal (perhaps because Dressel, and the demands of his late-week schedule here, did not race) for the first time in Games history.
The American swim team went into these Tokyo Games having never failed to medal in a swim relay. Now: two have not, that men’s 4x2 and Saturday’s mixed medley.
The swim meet has one more day to go. Even taking into account the mixed results in the relays — pun intended — Dressel can still finish with five golds. Phelps is the only person since 1992 to win five swim golds at a Games.
This note: Australia’s Emma McKeon, with two individual medals, including a gold in the women’s 100 free, and three relay medals, including the bronze from Saturday’s mixed medley, now has five. Sunday’s schedule should see her win two more — to make her only the second woman to win seven medals at an Olympics. The first: Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya, 1952.
“Wow,” Dressel said when told of that. “That’s amazing!”
Dressel knows most of America would be only dimly aware of the swim worlds from 2017 and 2019. These Olympics would thus be for most of the country, if not the world, his breakout moment.
It’s why he said in a pre-Games interview, asked about the Phelps comparisons, “I don’t think it’s fair to Michael. He’s a better swimmer than me. I’m completely fine with saying that. That’s not my goal in the sport, to beat Michael …
“I’m fine if people want to compare me to him. I have some goals that I would like to accomplish to where I can consider myself to be great, and I don’t have to compare myself to Michael to consider myself to be great.”
There has to be here a Phelps flashback. It’s unavoidable. In 2008, Phelps memorably won the 100 fly by holding off Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of a second.
Hungary’s Kristof Milak had already won the 200 fly on Wednesday in Olympic-record time, 1:51.25, breaking Phelps’ 2008 mark, 1:52.03. He was the No. 2 qualifier in the 100 fly, in Lane Five. Dressel was in Four.
The 100 Saturday boiled down to this: could Dressel build enough in the first 50 to hold off a charging Milak in the back half? Answer: resoundingly. Dressel hit the first wall in 23-flat, then split the second 50 in 26.45. Milak was at the first 50 in 23.65; his second half was 26.03; all in, 49.68; under Dressel’s prior 49.71 Olympic record, set in the semifinals, but good only for second.
Against the wall, in the water, the pair shook hands, two guys who understood what the other had done. “That,” Dressel said, “was a really fun race to be part of.”
In the 50 free, France’s Florent Manaudou, the London 2012 gold medalist in this event, out of retirement at age 30, threw down a 21.53 in the first semi. In the second, Dressel answered: nine-hundredths faster. “I just went fast, set myself up well for tomorrow,” Dressel said.
In that pre-Games interview, Dressel also explained why he so enjoys swimming:
“It’s very primitive, very simple. ‘Let me see if I can go faster than you.’ There’s no judging. No scores. Just time. ‘Let me get my hand on the wall faster than you.’”
Even though he was a little tired and nervous in the ready room before the 100 fly, the first of Saturday’s triple, the day’s racing proved he could shake all that off. And execute. It’s why he’s here.
“You’re always capable,” he said, “of doing something great.”
Caeleb Dressel of Team United States competes in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.