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Caeleb Dressel has done everything in swimming. Individual Olympic gold still felt ‘different’

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TOKYO — Caeleb Dressel threw back his head, peeled off his goggles, and looked around, and then, with what strength he could still muster after swimming 100 meters in 47 seconds, faster than anybody ever had at the Olympics, he lifted his chiseled but weary body up onto the middle lane line here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. And for a few seconds, he sat there.

Here was a 24-year-old man who had done almost everything there is to do in his sport. Olympic gold medals? Yep. World records? Those too. World championships? Thirteen of ‘em. National championships? Plenty. And diverse interests beyond swimming as well.

And yet here he was, soaking up an irreplicable moment, overcome by emotions he’d never felt before.

The one thing Dressel hadn’t done was win individual Olympic gold, and that’s what he did here on Thursday, halfway through the swimming competition in Tokyo. Fans expected he would. Experts knew he would. Some think he’ll leave Tokyo next week as the most decorated American of these Olympics. Some have been thinking that for years. At the very least, he’d get his individual title.

When the moment came to celebrate individul Olympic gold, something Caeleb Dressel had never done before in his decorated career, he soaked it in. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)
When the moment came to celebrate individul Olympic gold, something Caeleb Dressel had never done before in his decorated career, he soaked it in. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

But for all the time and energy and emotion that Dressel puts into this grueling, at times monotonous sport, between his 20th and 27th birthdays, he had but one four-day window to experience this. One sliver of life, just a few minutes in the pool in total, vulnerable to chance, the whims of the human body and the fragility of the human psyche. Just a few swims through the pool to either capture this moment or come up short of gold and experience something else.

Dressel felt pressure in the days prior to the 100-meter freestyle, his first individual event. And pressure is fine, he said; it’s inevitable. “When you turn it into stress, that's when it becomes a problem,” he explained. And during his early swims here, “I was turning the pressure into stress.”

Because this, all of this, is different. Dressel has won several golds at two separate world championships. But he doesn’t have a world championship logo tattooed on his right forearm; he has the Olympic rings.

He won Olympic golds in relays in Rio, but then he could rely on teammates. Chasing gold in an individual event, he said, “is a lot different. I guess I thought it would be. I just didn't want to admit to it. It is a lot different. It's a lot tougher. You can only rely on yourself.”

There is something indescribable about the stage, something that brought even 10-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt to tears here on Thursday, something singular about the Olympics. “I know I'm not gonna relive the 2020 [Olympic] 100 free finals ever again,” Dressel said. “So I wanted to take that in as much as I could.

So he lingered there on the lane line. He stared at the scoreboard, which showed a “1” beside his name. He looked to his teammates and raise two arms diagonally skyward, and held them there for a few seconds.

Dressel is a cryer, and later, the moment continually brought him to tears. A brief connection with his family via video call choked him up. Tears still flowed as he walked through the bowels of the arena, into the team room.

He struggled to put them into words in brief interviews afterward. But it was clear that they were Olympic teams. “These moments are a lot different than worlds,” he said. “I mean, Olympics is a lot different.”

And he has realized while here how fleeting the Games are, how rare this opportunity is. “You ask anybody in the world, if they had an opportunity to race in an Olympic final, why would they not want to take hold of that opportunity?” he said.

Dressel has, and there’s no telling whether he’ll get to again. And he knows, as he said after that first individual gold, that “there's people who would kill to be in the situation I am. In lane 5 in an Olympic final, or whatever lane. So I don't want to take that for granted.”

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