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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For six days in the Smoky Mountains, all that mattered to Caeleb Dressel was finding water and making camp before dark.
Everything else of his daily life as one of the USA’s top medal contenders for the Tokyo Olympics – the social media obligations and interminable training – fell away. In the woods of Tennessee, Dressel hauled his 30-pound pack over 60 miles.
The now annual Dressel family trip – dad, Michael, and siblings, Tyler and Kaitlyn, go every year – had never been doable with Caeleb’s swimming schedule, but the pandemic gave him the chance to experience the stories he’d heard about for years.
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So he picked up a rattlesnake, albeit an already dead one. He earned his trail name, Bone Dry, hours into the hike after emptying his hydration pack. He met strangers and found community amid a pandemic. He spent time alone with his thoughts, debating whether walking eight to 12 miles a day was fun. (It was, he decided.)
Though his sister had packed double the amount of food for him, he couldn’t eat enough.
“There would be moments where he just looked like a starving puppy sitting around the campfire,” Kaitlyn Dressel said, “so some nights I’d pretend that I was actually full and give him the leftovers in my container.”
One day, he got so far ahead of the group that he scribbled a note in the dirt that he was OK. Kaitlyn, who had hiked hundreds of miles over the past five years, thought going into the trip that she might finally have an edge over her younger brother. But on day three or four, on already tired legs, Caeleb looked at a three-mile downhill stretch and asked if she wanted to run.
“I absolutely loved it,” Dressel said. “Everything that I thought was a problem in my life, you get out on the trail, it wasn’t a problem.
“A lot of people ask me about the Olympics,” added Dressel. “It was awesome, was a great experience, but didn’t change my life. Appalachian Trail definitely changed my life.”
The next month could determine how much that holds true.
Dressel, 24, won two gold medals on relays at the Rio Games five years ago, but much has changed since then. The Florida native claimed 15 world championship medals, 13 of them gold, since 2017, making him one of the biggest stars in the pool. Dressel enters Tokyo favored to contend for gold in at least six events.
Practically, his life could look quite different in a few weeks’ time. But the same mindset that has made him one of the best swimmers in the world is what pushed him on the trail and has given him an identity away from the pool.
“Everything comes back to this mental component for him,” said Meghan Dressel, Caeleb’s wife. “Even on that trip, he was like, ‘The best part was seeing how far I could push myself mentally.’”
A thinker and a perfectionist
With the COVID-19 pandemic prompting the postponement of the Olympics in March 2020, it gave Dressel the opportunity for things besides his family’s hiking trip.
Dressel and Ben Kennedy – his teammate at the University of Florida and roommate – had started a podcast a few months before the pandemic, The Ben and Caeleb Show. Led by Dressel’s curiosity, they talked about everything from acupuncture to dolphins to anti-matter gravity propulsion.
Remarkably, they rarely discussed swimming and if the show had a through line besides their friendship, it was ways to make yourself better. Kennedy calls Dressel a “very interested person” and said it gave him new energy to focus on things outside the pool.
“He thrives off that kind of thing,” Kennedy said.
He and Meghan wed earlier this year, though when they originally planned the wedding it was meant to be after the Olympics.
They bought a house with 10 acres outside of Gainesville and painted the whole interior before Dressel found a can left by the previous owner. The paint was the same color, though Meghan argued the effort hadn’t been a waste because they had used better quality paint.
An avid reader of self-help books – something he picked up from his dad – Dressel read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” For weeks after, Meghan returned home to find bags of trash and items to be donated.
“If he feels like there’s room for improvement in anything, he will sit and chew on that until you can chew no more,” Meghan Dressel said.
Of course, that’s also what has made him one of the best swimmers in the world.
No part of his swimming is too small to consider how he could tweak it. Dressel has for years kept a journal of his practices and races, analyzing everything from his start to his strokes to how his body feels in the water.
Dressel has added about nine inches to his vertical jump – which is crucial for powering off the block – but strength coach Matt DeLancey said he hasn’t been complacent. Dressel set personal records for all his major lifts during the pandemic.
He frequently trains with hurdler Grant Holloway, a fellow Gator and a favorite to win the 110-meter hurdles, in DeLancey’s garage weight room. For all the differences in their sports, Dressel and Holloway spent an afternoon discussing starts looking for any insight that could translate in a totally different sport.
Gregg Troy, who coached Dressel at Florida and now as part of the Gator Swim Club, calls him a thinker and a perfectionist.
“Sometimes he can overanalyze things,” Troy said, “but he thinks about enough early enough that once we get it set and he’s thought and is sure of it, then he becomes very confident.”
That confidence is now buoyed by maturity and comfort in who he is.
While he was still in college, Dressel won seven gold medals at the 2017 world championships – a feat matched only by Michael Phelps. He turned pro in 2018, and he had a down year at nationals as he adjusted to all that meant on the business side of the job.
In 2019, he returned to worlds and claimed another six golds, two silver and a world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
“His toolbox is way bigger now than it was in 2018,” Troy said.
Part of that is that identity away from swimming. Because Dressel has other interests and other things that define him, when he gets home from practice each day, he and Meghan seldom talk about it.
“He’s not his swimming,” Meghan Dressel said. “It’s something he loves, but it’s not who he is.”
A reset during the pandemic
For all of his initial ability to roll with it when the Olympics were postponed, eventually it began to wear on Dressel. By June 2020, with a year of hard training behind him and now yet another ahead, Dressel came to practice frustrated.
On a pool deck nearly an hour from his house, the result of relocation from Florida’s pool because of the pandemic, he questioned what they were doing and whether it was what he needed. He’d played the argument out in his head, preparing his retorts, before Troy just matter-of-factly said, tell me what you want, and we’ll do it.
“I have never been so humbled in my life because I’m a swimmer. I’m not a coach,” Dressel said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I need you. I need you so much.’”
In seven years together, they’d had their disagreements and Troy could see Dressel was struggling with the uncertainty of the future. After about 40 minutes, they hashed it out and Dressel said he hasn’t complained since.
“It was a little more resetting than anything else,” said Troy. “It’s a combination of the frustration and the disappointment, the fatigue of training.”
A year later, Dressel has positioned himself for several trips to the podium in Tokyo. At U.S. Olympic trials, he qualified in his signature events – the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly. He swam the fastest time in the world this year in the 50 free and 100 fly during that meet.
Troy expects he’ll swim on the 400 free, 400 medley and mixed medley relays, and he could join the 800 free relay.
For the first time, Dressel and Troy wrote down goal times this year. In previous years, it had just been a natural progression from where he was. Seeking to push Dressel rather than limit him, Troy threw out times faster than Dressel had.
“When in order to go your best time you gotta go to the world record, it puts you in a little different dynamic,” Troy said.
For his part, Dressel relished writing down “a crazy time” and then figuring out how to get there. It’s the process he enjoys, setting small goals each day that progress him toward the larger one.
By last fall, they got a good glimpse of how well it was working. The International Swimming League hosted a six-week competition season in a bubble in Budapest. Dressel led his team, the Cali Condors, to the league title, earned season MVP honors and set short-course world records in the 50 free, 100 fly and 100 medley.
“I personally loved the bubble,” Dressel said. “It was like a theme park for swimming for me.”
His time there served as a good barometer heading into Tokyo and practice for the type of measures he’ll face in Japan, but Dressel relished it as a chance to learn from the top swimmers in the world.
That’s the Caeleb his friends, family and teammates know, the one who applies an insatiable desire to learn as much about his varied interests as he does to the sport he now dominates.
“I love looking for ways to get better,” he said. “That’s the whole reason I’m still doing the sport. I’m loving the challenge that it brings and the whole reason I’m waking up every morning just looking for ways to get better.”
In Tokyo, it’s likely he won’t just be better. That striving is likely to make him the best.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympic swimming star Caeleb Dressel favored to win 6 medals in Tokyo