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Caeleb Dressel Isn’t Just The Next Michael Phelps. He Might Be Even Better.

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

Caeleb Dressel has been dubbed the “next American Aquaman” and “heir to Michael Phelps.” With the former king of the pool retired and Olympic swimming set to start Saturday, the 24-year-old Floridian is ready to take on those mantles.

In a number of disciplines, the 6-foot-2 Dressel is the fastest swimmer on the planet entering the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Oddsmakers are aware: He is favored in all three of his individual events, with Pinnacle and DraftKings giving him implied odds of greater than 90 percent in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly, events that he holds world records in.

His speed has never been seen before. Dressel is the first man to break 40 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle.1 He holds the five fastest American times ever recorded in the 50-meter freestyle and six of the top 20 times recorded in the event, including the top two since suits made of buoyant nontextile material were banned starting in 2010.2

He has rewritten the American record book in several events.

Dressel is pacing the American men

Caeleb Dressel’s top time and number of top 10 American times in four men’s events as recorded since 2009

Event No. of top 10 times Top time Best U.S. time? World record?
50-meter freestyle* 6 21.04s
100-meter freestyle 6 46.96
50-meter butterfly 6 22.35
100-meter butterfly 8 49.50

*Dressel set the world record in the 50-meter freestyle in a short-course-meter pool. This table accounts only for races in long-course-meter pools.

Source: FINA

Passive fans might remember Dressel from his first-ever Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when he won two gold medals as a member of the 4×100 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays.3 For those who haven’t watched him since, know that Dressel has been busy laying waste to the global circuit. At the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, he won seven gold medals, tying Phelps for the most golds won by a male swimmer at a single Worlds. Then, at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Dressel won six golds, set two American records and a world record, and became the first swimmer ever to win eight medals4 at a single Worlds. Only two countriesRussia and Australia — brought home more hardware than Dressel did by himself.5

As fellow Gator alumnus Ryan Lochte once put it, “He’s a freak.” 

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Everyone loves a closer — and the sport certainly lionizes finishers by featuring them incessantly in promotional materials.6 But while he certainly possesses top-end closing speed, the spectacle of a Dressel race is found at the start. With a vertical leap exceeding 40 inches, a Dressel Start is not unlike a torpedo launch. He shoots off the starting blocks, propelling himself through the air with his arms briefly splayed like a pterodactyl before he streamlines into the water. And Dressel’s rare abilities continue once he enters his lane: six dolphin kicks, an emergence and nearly always a lead. Then, violence. His start has been compared to a nuclear sub crashing through ice.

Watch the opening of Dressel’s world-record performance in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2019 World Championships. 

He has nearly a full body lead in the lane by the time he comes up for air. That unparalleled start is backed up by data, too. In 2017, German scientists found that Dressel was the first swimmer ever recorded to go sub-five seconds in the first 15 meters of a race.

His stamina will certainly be tested as he attempts to win seven medals and put up the kind of overall performance many anticipate. Working in Dressel’s favor is his history of shattering all-time marks on a tired body before. He has a string of attrition-defying feats to his credit already, including the time he broke two world records in less than an hour at the International Swimming League final, and the other time that he set and subsequently broke his own world record in the 50-yard freestyle twice in a 12-hour span at the 2018 NCAA Championships.

One need only look at Dressel’s YouTube page to recognize his insatiable thirst for dominance. 

“I had six weeks to figure out how to learn to swim this race,” he says early on in the most recent installment of Dressel Dissect, a video series in which the swimmer breaks down some of his marquee performances. “I thought I did a good job of figuring it out along the way,” Dressel continues, analyzing his world-record swim in the 100-meter individual medley before bemoaning both his “atrocious” start and “stupid haircut.”

He doesn’t want to be compared to Phelps but knows he can’t avoid it. Dressel is certainly aware of the pressure being heaped upon him since Phelps and Lochte won’t be competing.

“We’re going to have to pick up the pace because what they left behind was huge,” Dressel said at the U.S. Swim Trials in June. 

Only three male swimmers7 have won seven medals in a single Olympiad, and Dressel certainly has a chance to be the fourth. The greatest Olympic swimmer of all time may have left the pool, but the fastest swimmer on the planet remains ready in the water.

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  1. Races are in yards rather than meters at the NCAA level.

  2. Dressel finished in 21.04 seconds — tying himself for the fastest American time — at the U.S. Swim Trials in June.

  3. He also finished sixth in the 100-meter freestyle.

  4. Two of which were silver.

  5. Put another way, he won as many medals as the entire country of Italy at that event.

  6. Think Jason Lezak in the 4×100 meter freestyle or Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly.

  7. Matt Biondi, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.