Caeleb Dressel fails to qualify for swimming worlds after 22nd place in 50 freestyle


Two years after winning five Olympic gold medals, Caleb Dressel didn’t even make America’s world championship team.

He still smiled about the accomplishments he did make at this week’s national championships.

Dressel returned to high-level competition for the first time in nearly a year, prided himself on the effort he mustered following a desperately needed nine-month break from the sport and left satisfied despite failing to make the “A” final in two of his four events. For Dressel, it’s a new world.

“I’m proud of myself for the results, believe it or not,” he said in his first public comments since his suddenly withdrawing at last year’s worlds in Budapest, Hungary, citing health reasons. “I know it’s shocking. I’m not used to swimming in the C’ finals so it’s definitely something different. But I wouldn’t have changed anything about this year, wouldn’t change anything about the swim meet.” Dressel hardly resembled the world’s best swimmer, which he was when he stepped away.

He completed Saturday’s 50 freestyle in 22.72 seconds, tied for 22nd. In the frantic sprint from one end of the pool to the other, Dressel wound up 1.07 seconds behind top qualifier Ryan Held and 0.59 outside the top eight. And unlike earlier this week, he opted out of the evening heat.

A year ago, the result might have been frustrating, irritating and long-lasting.

But this five-day meet was about far more than record times or podium finishes.

Dressel’s friends, teammates, training partners and coaches sensed an inner calm about Dressel, reflected in the ear-to-ear smiles that suggested his long journey back might come just in time for next summer’s Olympics in Paris.

“I think he’s in a good spot,” Katie Ledecky said after dominating the 1,500 free final again. “I don’t want to speak for him or how he feels about his races, but just what we see on the deck every day in practice, what we saw here, he seems happy and that’s what we all care about.” The good news is Dressel already successfully made this ascent once. The challenge: He also understands what’s needed to defend his gold-medal winning swims in the 100 butterfly, the 50 and 100 free and two relays at the Tokyo Olympics.

It took years for him to reach the top and with next year’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis and Paris Olympics looming, the 26-year-old Floridian needs to get into top form quickly.

But it would unwise to bet against the first swimmer since Michael Phelps to win seven gold medals at the 2017 worlds in Budapest would. Dressel followed up with six golds and two relay silvers at the 2019 championships in Gwangju, South Korea before his Olympic haul. Then last summer in Budapest, he took two more golds and posted the second-fastest time in the 100 free prelims before pulling out of the meet.

“I think the easiest way to put it is a lot of things all came boiling up at once so I didn’t really have a choice,” Dressel said. “I used to pride myself on being able to shove things down and push it aside and fight through it and it worked for a very long time in my career. I got results in 17, 19 and ’21, but I couldn’t do it anymore.” Nesty understood. He gave Dressel the time and space he needed to start anew.

“An athlete like that has a lot on his shoulders, and I wanted him to have everything removed from his shoulders,” Nesty said. “He needed to focus on him.” Dressel eventually returned to the pool in late February and gradually ramped up his training schedule before competing at a minor meet in Atlanta in May.

Indy was the second stop on the comeback tour and neither Dressel nor Nesty were surprised at the impact of the long layoff. Dressel’s best showing of the week was a third-place finish in the 50 butterfly, a non-Olympic event. He tied for fifth in the 100 fly and failed to make the main final in either the 50 or 100 free.

And while his inability to qualify for the national team will deprive fans of one of the sport’s most successful athletes at swimming’s second-most important event, Dressel has returned with a new attitude and mentality that he can reclaim her perch next summer.

“I haven’t had that enjoyment for quite some time, so it was nice being back,” he said. “The times weren’t fast. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good and I’m fine with that. If I can have the mindset I had at this meet going into next year and year’s after this, I’ve got a very long, very successful rest of my career in front of me.”


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