And yet Dressel, thoughtful and introspective, has no interest in contemplating record books or making history.
“I don’t come to meets to count medals,” he said Monday night. “It’s not what I do. It’s just really for me. If it was me in the water and my coach, I’d be totally happy with that. And nothing else.”
For now, the rest of the swimming world can enjoy the speculation and what-ifs. Each time Dressel dives into the pool, he seems to further stoke the possibilities. Monday’s race might have been his biggest obstacle: He won seven world titles two years ago but had finished fourth in the 50 fly in Budapest.
“A lot of people have reminded me that I didn’t win this in ’17,” he joked Monday night.
Dressel crushed the field this time around, posting the second-fastest time in history — 22.35 seconds — and setting the U.S. record. The win marked the first time an American swimmer had claimed the event at the world championships.
While that distance isn’t offered at the Olympics, Dressel’s other core events are — including the 100 fly and the 50 and 100 freestyle races — which means there’s a chance he will pursue seven or eight gold medals in Tokyo.
The Phelps comparisons are inevitable, but they aren’t perfect. Dressel’s program would be markedly different from what Phelps did in 2008. Phelps won five individual titles, whereas Dressel probably would target only three or four, plus as many as four relays. One of the relays Dressel might swim there is a mixed-gender event that will be staged for the first time in Tokyo. If he wants to take aim at eight, Dressel probably would have to add an individual race, such as the 200 free.
“If you’re talking about maybe eight medals, on paper it’s similar,” said Nathan Adrian, the five-time Olympic gold medalist who has won relay medals teaming with both swimmers. “But from a personality standpoint, what he’s swimming and who he is as a person, he’s definitely not trying to be Michael.”
Phelps was hyper-focused and hyper-competitive, a rare talent who always had his eyes on making history and often found himself in a bubble of sorts. Dressel is a bit more introspective about his mission in and out of the pool.
“For me, it’s just kind of a chase for self-improvement in and out of the water. That’s why I do enjoy the sport,” he said. “You’re never going to reach perfection in the sport unless you’re hitting zero seconds, which is literally impossible.”
For no particular reason, Dressel said he woke up anxious Monday. His heartbeat was 150, so he went for a walk, watched car videos on his phone and cracked open a familiar book called “Zen in the Martial Arts,” which he also read before the 2017 world championships. “I’ll probably finish it tomorrow and then restart it again,” he said.
Whatever he’s doing this season is working. After his breakout performance in 2017, his times suffered last year. After those seven golds at the world championships, he had just two at last year’s Pan Pacific championships, only one of which came in an individual event. Dressel later revealed that he had been involved in a motorcycle accident that interfered with his training. But he was also adjusting to life as a professional, having wrapped up his University of Florida career in spring 2018.
“In my experiences, as athletes finish up their senior year and make that transition to a professional athlete, there's challenges,” said U.S. men’s coach Dave Durden, who coaches the men’s team at the University of California. “There's hurdles, hoops and pressures. So it takes a little while to get comfortable a lot of times.”
This season — and this week especially — Dressel looks as comfortable in the pool as any American swimmer. He has a dizzying few days ahead of him and in all probably will race 16 times here, among heats, semifinals and finals — maybe 17 times if he takes aim at a ninth event and joins the 4x200 freestyle relay team.
That means fans can expect to see him on the podium several more times, a preview of what might be in store next summer.
“It doesn’t get old,” he said. “I hope the feeling of standing up on the podium winning gold will never get old.”
Read more on the Olympics: