Caeleb Dressel tossed his medal to a teammate after winning the 4x100m freestyle relay earlier in the week. He’ll want to hold on to this one.
The figurehead of US men’s swimming won the first individual Olympic gold of his career in Tokyo on Thursday, setting a new Olympic record in the 100m freestyle.
He led from start to finish, though the winning margin was tight, with the 2016 champion, Kyle Chalmers of Australia, sixth hundredths of a second behind Dressel’s time of 47.02, which improved on a mark set in 2008 during the full-body “super suit” era.
“It means a lot. I knew that weight was on my shoulders – I’d won relay medals but never individual, so it was really special,” Dressel said. “It is different. I didn’t want to admit it but now that I did it, I can. It’s a lot different – you can’t rely on anyone else. It’s just you and the water, there’s no one there to bail you out. It’s tough.”
The Floridian, who turns 25 next month, is the 100m butterfly world record holder, the owner of fifteen world championship medals, and a touchstone for a team with lofty expectations.
In the three categories of medal contender – could win, should win, and shocked-if-they-don’t-win – Dressel is one of those rare athletes who belongs in the latter bracket more or less every time they compete. And there are plenty more races to come in Tokyo, with Dressel anticipated to race in the 50m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 4x100m medley and mixed medley.
Sportswriting abhors a narrative void and the quest to anoint a successor was inevitable after Michael Phelps retired five years ago with a medal haul that would be the envy of many entire nations. It was not hard to identify the most obvious candidate. After Rio, Dressel swam out from Phelps’s wake in spectacular fashion, dominating the world championships.
Understandably, given the pressure it invites, it’s not a comparison that the reliably modest Dressel relishes. “I don’t think it’s fair to Michael,” he told NBC. “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 a very different athlete than Michael. He was at a whole other level.”
Phelps, who accrued 28 Olympic medals – 23 golds, 13 of them individual – is the most successful Olympian in history. It would be the most skyscraping of tall orders to come anywhere close to that. But a prospering Dressel seems essential if the US is to maintain its usual preeminence in the pool, with a resurgent Australia and better-than-expected Great Britain impeding what is normally a commanding American lead in the medal table.
Phelps, in Japan as a television analyst, blasted the decision not to deploy Dressel in the 4x200m freestyle the day before, when the US failed to win a medal in the event for the first time (1980 boycott aside) since 1908.
It was a different tale in the 4x100m freestyle on Monday when the owner of two Rio relay golds lobbed his shiny jewelry to Brooks Curry in the stands. Curry was not part of the medal ceremony since he swam in the heats but not the final.
In the session’s first event a late burst brought gold for Bobby Finke, a 21-year-old from the aptly-named Florida city of Clearwater, in a new Olympic event, the men’s 800m freestyle. Regan Smith took silver, and Hali Flickinger bronze, in the women’s 200m butterfly. Zhang Yufei of China won easily in an Olympic record time of 2:03.86.
In the latest round of the duel between Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus, the winner was … neither of them. Ledecky swam a blistering final leg in a thrilling 4x200m freestyle, posting a notably faster time than she did when finishing fifth in the individual 200m. But the American could not quite catch Li Bingjie, and China held on to take the gold. Titmus swam the leadoff leg for Australia, who were third in a race that saw the top three teams all inside world record pace.
Dressel, who has a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right arm, was visibly emotional after his victory, and perhaps a little awe-struck even before the race. Tunnel vision is not his style. “I don’t want to get immune to the feeling that racing offers me. I just want to take hold of that moment and enjoy it,” he said. “Lane five in an Olympic final? I don’t want to take that for granted.”