At the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. men’s swimming team will look very different. No Michael Phelps. No Ryan Lochte. No Nathan Adrian or Matt Grevers. Swimmers who have led the American efforts in the pool — and the winners of many gold medals — have retired or didn’t make the team during the Olympic Trials.
This puts Caeleb Dressel front and center.
Dressel won two golds in Rio de Janeiro, both on the relay team. He was just 19 at those Olympics. Now he’s 24, gotten married and has taken on the role of being the face of USA Swimming. Commercials featuring Dressel are ubiquitous, and he was a fan favorite at the Olympic Trials last month. But he’s not ready to take on the mantel left by swimmers before him.
“I don't think that falls on my shoulders alone,” Dressel said. “Michael was one guy within USA Swimming, but he wasn't USA Swimming. I think that's what makes USA Swimming so strong is the team and as a collective whole.
“My favorite part about any team trip I've been on is the training camp because that's when Team USA really becomes Team USA. We bond together, and it really is a collective group. And I don't think that should fall on one person's shoulders. I don't think it was Michael alone, and it's certainly not myself alone.”
Still, Dressel will have a busy schedule while in Japan. He will swim the 50-meter freestyle, the 100 freestyle and the 100 butterfly, as well as several relays. He won six golds at the world championships, so expectations are high.
Like so many athletes after the Olympics were postponed, Dressel wasn’t sure if the Tokyo Games would ever come, but he continued to prepare.
“(Dressel’s coach Gregg) Troy always had a plan. We followed that plan,” Dressel said. “I know he had a backup plan in case it didn't go through, but Troy always said, ‘We're training as if trials are happening and we're going to train as if the games are happening, so if something does fall through, we're not going to be looking cluelessly at which direction to go.’
“So we always had a direction. That's all credited to coach Troy. … That's why we end up in the boat we are right now.”
The plan worked out well, as Dressel had plenty to celebrate at the Olympic Trials. He’s not a big fan of the spotlight out of the pool, but in the pool, when he qualified for the team, he let loose.
“I pick and choose when I like to have my moments,” Dressel said. “I’ve always said if you win your heat, that heat is yours. You can do what you like, so I was excited. There was a lot of emotion wrapped up in that. This meet was prolonged a year. It was more than I just won a 100 freestyle. There was a lot of emotion in this. All the struggles through quarantine, finding pools to train at, all of that packed into one race. It wasn't just a 100 free for me. There was a lot going on.”
“(There was) a lot of outside pressure, which I've gotten better and better at ignoring. So it's not just what you see,” he added. “I was excited. I wanted to share that with the crowd. Right now, I'm kind of over the spotlight again, but for that moment I wanted to have it and share that with the people in the stadium. It was fun. It was fun celebrating with them, and it was a fun race with these boys. That was an ecstatic 100 free, and I really enjoyed doing that with them.”