Thirteen world titles and a reputation as a worthy successor to Michael Phelps haven’t made Caeleb Dressel any more comfortable with fame.
But the US swim star will likely just have to get used to it at the Tokyo Olympics, where the 24-year-old could become just the fourth swimmer in history to win seven medals in a single Games.
That’s a list led, of course, by Phelps’s dazzling eight golds in eight events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That eclipsed the record seven swimming golds won by Mark Spitz in Munich in 1972.
American Matt Biondi won five golds, a silver and a bronze in Seoul in 1988.
Dressel has limbered up for a big Olympic splash with a record eight-medal tally — including six gold — at the 2019 World Championships — adding them to the seven he won at the 2017 worlds.
Dressel is certainly interested in transferring that success to the Olympics, even if he’s not enamored of the hoopla that surrounds the Games or concerned with cross-over stardom.
“I don’t very much care for the spotlight," Dressel said before the US trials — where he was impressed, if slightly bemused, that sponsor Toyota displayed a car emblazoned by a Texas artist with an approximation of his intricate tattoos.
Featured in GQ magazine’s pre-Olympic coverage, widely touted by US Olympic broadcaster NBC as a face of the American team, Dressel is firmly focused on his job in the pool, a job that hasn’t changed despite the one-year pandemic delay of the Tokyo Games.
With the sudden shut-down of competition in March of 2020, Dressel compensated by joining family members in hiking the Appalachian Trail, calling it a life-changing experience.
“I feel like I larned a lot more about myself, my family and everything going on around me more on the trail than I did with the Olympic Games," he said.
This year Dressel’s personal horizons expanded again when he married fiancee Meghan Haila on Valentine’s Day — although he let slip at a pre-trials press conference in June that he “never missed a practice for my wedding.
“I swam the morning of my wedding."
Day-in, day-out focus
Coach Gregg Troy was quick to point out that was Dressel’s decision entirely.
“He had the time off," Troy said. “He chose to do it himself."
That’s a reflection of how Dressel’s focus in the pool has remained the same throughout the pandemic delay.
“The only thing that’s changed for me is instead of 2020 Games it’s 2021," Dressel said. “Perspective hasn’t changed. Same focus, day-in and day-out, looking for ways to get better, and I’m going to stick to that."
Dressel tackles three individual events in Tokyo — the 50m and 100m freestyle and the 100m butterfly.
He’s the two-time reigning world champion in all three and the 100m fly world record-holder.
There’s also a possible four relays on his card as he stands poised to cement an Olympic legacy that began when he earned two relay golds — as the leadoff swimmer in the 4x100m free and a heats swimmer in the medley relay — at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where he was sixth in the 100m free.
While Phelps was tight-lipped during his career about any uncertainties that gnawed at him, Dressel is up-front about the emotional ups and downs he goes through during meets.
After his historic performance at the 2019 worlds he told USA Today: “Part of me is very happy.
“Part of me wants to cry that I’m done with it. I’ve got pimples on my face from just the stress of the meet. I’m probably losing some hair."
At the US trials in June, where his first final didn’t come until the fifth day of the eight-day meeting, he admitted it was an agonizing wait.
When he hits the water, none of that turmoil is evident, though Dressel himself says he still feels like the wide-eyed 15-year-old who contested his first US Olympics trials in 2012.
Now a captain of the US squad, he said he hopes he can offer the same guidance he received from swimmers like Phelps and Nathan Adrian, typically speaking more of others than himself when he talks about his leadership role.
He particularly misses the presence of 2012 100m free gold medallist Adrian, who, Dressel said, allowed “anybody to be able to step up and be a leader on the team.
“I’m hoping I can do that as well," Dressel said.