“I was telling my brain to shut up,” Dressel said. “It was a little bit annoying. And I did. … I was nervous. There we go.”
Dressel’s abilities, though, are overriding his nerves. His spectacular meet continued Saturday during his most hectic session of the Tokyo Games. He won an emphatic third gold in the 100-meter butterfly, breaking his own world record. He got back in the pool to qualify for the finals of the 50 freestyle, in which he could win another gold.
And then he anchored a new event, the mixed medley relay — three swims in one session, a logistical nightmare attempted by no one else here. “I’m just tired,” he said.
That last swim — in which he was the only male freestyler entering the pool against seven women — couldn’t bring another medal. The event is equal parts contrived and fun, but the U.S. finished fifth — undermined by breaststroker Lydia Jacoby’s goggles ending up around her chin, and an eight-second deficit before the final 100 meters that Dressel couldn’t make up.
“Of course we’re not happy with how we finished,” Dressel said. “Fifth place is not acceptable for USA Swimming. That’s unacceptable. Our standard is gold.”
It’s a standard he has met — and will try twice more. The signature of Dressel’s meet, even as there’s more to write, has to be the 100 fly, the first event of Saturday’s session. Though Tokyo Aquatics Center has no fans, American swimmers — so many of them having completed their competition — packed a section of the stands to cheer on their teammates, banging together thundersticks and rhythmically chanting, “Cae-leb Dres-sel! Cae-leb Dres-sel!” as the field took to the starting blocks.
Whether he needs that kind of external juice at this point is hard to say. Dressel, on his own, is meeting the moment — a pre-Olympic favorite who is scoffing at that pressure and delivering golds. In the 100 fly, he had a stud in Hungary’s Kristof Milak one lane over, the champion in the 200 fly here.
“He’s going to put me out of a job one day,” Dressel said.
Not yet. Dressel is currently impervious to the competition. In the fly, he delivered dominance. Dressel led Milak by 65 hundredths of a second at the 50-meter mark — massive separation in a 100-meter race. Milak was faster coming home, but not by nearly enough. Dressel touched in 49.45 — five-hundredths under the world mark he set at the 2019 worlds, 23 hundredths ahead of Milak.
“I didn’t even die,” Dressel said. “He came home really well.”
Dressel’s celebration: a soft smile, a clasp of hands with Milak, a flex of his left biceps toward the U.S. team — and more swimming. Phelps, the greatest Olympic swimmer ever, famously went for — and earned — a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. He did it at distances ranging from 100 to 400 meters, in all four strokes when accounting for the individual medleys. The program is inconceivable, and when Phelps returned to for the London Games four years later, he didn’t attempt to repeat it, dropping the 400 IM.
Cast against that, Dressel’s program here is more modest: nothing more than 100 meters, only freestyle and fly. But don’t cast it against Phelps. Cast it against the best that he can do — and he’s doing it. What awaits Sunday — in the final session in the pool here — are a chance at five medals, the last two in the 50 free and as one leg of the medley relay.
“Caeleb is a real leader on our team,” said none other than Katie Ledecky, who won her seventh career gold Saturday in the 800 free. “It was so impressive what he did tonight, swimming three races. He leads both in and out of the water, and is just an incredible swimmer. … He just has a great family, really cares about his teammates, and is just a really great presence on the pool deck for Team USA.”
That team has one more session to make sure it acquits itself as the best of the meet, and Australia is coming. In the women’s 200 back on Saturday, Australian Kaylee McKeown, who won gold in the 100 back here, tracked down Canada’s Kylie Masse for gold in 2:04.68 — ahead of Masse and fellow Australian Elizabeth Seebohm. A pair of Americans — Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon, an 18-year-old from Bethesda — missed bronze by 22 and 23 hundredths of a second, respectively.
McKeown’s gold was the Aussies’ seventh here, just one behind the Americans going into the final session. Can the U.S. hold off the Aussies?
“I’m not going to guarantee anything,” Dressel said.
Maybe because he has two more events to juggle. Even Ledecky — who took on a monstrous program here — never faced a session like Dressel’s Saturday morning. The 100 fly was followed 46 minutes later by the semifinal of the 50 free. Dressel qualified first for Sunday’s final in 21.42 seconds, and he’s a strong contender to win his fourth gold.
From that one-lap sprint, Dressel walked across the deck to the adjacent pool that hosts the diving competition to casually swim some backstroke laps. The physiology of this sport requires athletes to “warm down” after competitions, and they do that not by sitting idly, but by swimming more. There is a separate pool, under the stands and out of view, for that purpose. But with his next swim just 27 minutes away, Dressel didn’t have time for the walk in-between.
“I’m most comfortable in the pool swimming, so it’s most comfortable to have a lot of swims back-to-back-to-back,” he said. “I wouldn’t want that every day.”
Nor would he want what he faced in the new mixed medley relay.
Dressel entered the pool eight seconds behind the leaders and covered the two lengths in 46.99 seconds — faster than the 47.02 he swam to win gold in the 100 free. But relay legs should be faster because the start can be anticipated, and he could catch just three swimmers. Britain, China and Australia took the medals.
“We got beat by the better team,” Dressel said. “It stings.”
The sting will be replaced Sunday by more nerves. Then, there will be two more swims — a chance at two more medals. Caeleb Dressel is not here to be Michael Phelps. What he’s here to be is the best version of himself. That’s working out just fine.