Olympics: Dressel set to channel inner beast, replace Phelps as swimming's new icon

SINGAPORE – He has tattoos of an alligator and a bear on his left arm, while an eagle adorns his left shoulder, extending to his chest, and Caeleb Dressel is very much looking like he will be a beast at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the July 24-Aug 1 Olympic swimming programme.

All eyes will be on the American to see if he can complete a seven-gold sweep. His compatriot Mark Spitz managed the feat in 1972 but the single-Olympic record of eight gold medals was established by Michael Phelps at Beijing 2008.

Dressel himself is not fussed about the quest. In addition to swimming a different repertoire of events, the 24-year-old has long stated his disdain at being billed as the next Phelps, even if he conceded that comparisons between himself and the latter are unavoidable.

Dressel told the Straits Times in a 2019 interview when the US swim team trained in Singapore: “We are totally different swimmers. We are in the same sport and that’s about it. I swim sprints, he’s not even really a sprinter.

“He’s done his thing. He’s the go-to for the sport. I understand comparisons are inevitable, but it’s completely different events. I’m going to focus on what I’m capable of doing.”

But what he is definitely capable of is becoming the new king of the Olympic pool. Since winning two relay golds at Rio 2016, he has dominated his pet events – the 50m free, 100m free, 100m butterfly – which he swept at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships.

Throw in the three men’s relays and the new mixed 4x100m medley relay, and there is every chance he could claim seven golds at Tokyo 2020.

He will get some help in terms of scheduling – the 50m free and 100m fly are no longer in the same session like they were from Athens 2004 to Rio 2016 and he will not have to swim three finals in one session like he did at the World Championships.

His first individual event – the July 27-29 100m free – will be his toughest.

Standing in his way is defending champion Kyle Chalmers, who is back from three surgeries to correct a heart-rate condition and is also out to make history as the first Australian man to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the blue-riband event.

The 23-year-old beat sixth-placed Dressel at Rio 2016 and again at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships but has not beaten the American since, with the latter having the faster personal best of 46.96sec to Chalmers’ 47.08sec.

Chalmers said: “His skills are unbelievable. He’s got the better start, and probably the best turns the world’s ever seen. Whereas my skills aren’t overly great. We swim it differently. But you know, that last five metres is where the dog fight is, and that’s the part of the race I love. I just want to get my hand on the wall first.”

In the July 29-31 100m fly, Dressel is expected to ease to the gold medal as he holds not just the world record of 49.50sec but also 10 of the 12 fastest times in the event among current swimmers. None of them have gone under 50 seconds while he has already done so five times.

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This means Singapore’s defending champion Joseph Schooling (50.39sec) and Hungary’s Kristof Milak (50.18sec) will have to find a new PB to stand a chance of an upset.

The 50m free, scheduled for July 30-Aug 1, is more of a lottery with many variables that could go wrong over such a short distance. Dressel faces a list of challengers in Briton Benjamin Proud (21.11sec), Frenchman Florent Manaudou (21.19), Brazilian Bruno Fratus (21.27) and Russian Vladimir Morozov (21.41).

While it is slim margins, Dressel again has the better PB of 21.04sec, which he clocked in 2019 and at this year’s US Olympic trials. Simply put, it will take a Herculean effort to prevent this beast from winning three individual gold medals.

Familiar foes – the Australians, Russians and Britons – lie in wait for the relays. While the Americans swept the relay golds at Rio 2016, their rivals have improved vastly over the past five years, with the great Phelps retired.

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At the 2019 World Championships, the United States won just two relay events, including the mixed 4x100m free that will not be contested in Tokyo. They still reigned supreme in the men’s 4x100m free, but were overtaken in the men’s 4x200m free (which Dressel did not swim) by Australia and Russia, and the 4x100m medley by Britain.

Australia also edged them by 0.02sec in the mixed 4x100m medley, which shows that it will not be entirely a stroll for Dressel and the Americans.

Indeed, other than Dressel’s coronation, there are other engaging subplots at the pool, with American Lilly King firing the first salvo in June when the women’s 100m breaststroke world record holder (1:04.13) said: “I think the (United States) women, if we have the meet we can have, can win every single individual gold. I think that would be pretty cool, right?”

To which Australia’s Ariarne Titmus responded: “I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America’s way.”

The tension is impossible to miss after America’s Katie Ledecky, the women’s 400m (3min:56.46sec), 800m (8:04.79) and 1,500m (15:20.48) freestyle world record holder – snubbed Titmus after being outshone in the shorter distance at the 2019 World Championships. And the Ledecky-Titmus showdown could provide another dramatic storyline.

In the other events, Kaylee McKeown set a new women’s 100m backstroke world record (57.45sec) at the Australian Olympic trials in June to stake her claim at her first Games, while Briton Adam Peaty will look to defend his men’s 100m breaststroke title after lowering the world record for the fifth time to 56.88sec.

Elsewhere, there will be an emotional welcome for home hope Rikako Ikee. After winning six golds and two silvers at the 2018 Asian Games, she was diagnosed with leukaemia a year later. However, the 21-year-old bounced back to qualify for the 4x100m freestyle and medley relays.

Already a winner in life, Ikee is eyeing more than just medals as she said after an Olympic training camp in April: “It felt like we’re at a time of generational change. I want to be the kind of athlete who can lead others.”

Phelps V Dressel: Where they stand

Michael Phelps’ Olympic career:

Sydney 2000: Fifth in 200m fly

Athens 2004: 6 golds (100m and 200m fly, 200m and 400m individual medley, 4x200m free, 4x100m medley); 2 bronzes (200m free, 4x100m free). *He swam only the heats in the 4x100m medley

Beijing 2008: 8 golds (200m free, 100m and 200m fly, 200m and 400m IM, 4x100m and 4x200m free, 4x100m medley)

London 2012: 4 golds (100m fly, 200m IM, 4x200m free, 4x100m medley), 2 silvers (200m fly, 4x100m free), 4th in 400m IM

Rio 2016: 5 golds (200m fly, 200m IM, 4x100m and 4x200m free, 4x100m medley), 1 silver (100m fly)

Caeleb Dressel’s Olympic career:

Rio 2016: 2 golds (4x100m free, 4x100m medley), sixth in 100m free

Caeleb Dressel’s Tokyo 2020 probable programme:

50m free (July 30-Aug 1)
100m free (July 27-29)
100m fly (July 29-31)
4x100m free (July 25-26)
4x200m free (July 27-28)
4×100 medley relay (July 30, Aug 1)
Mixed 4x100m medley relay (July 29, 31)

Caeleb Dressel’s personal bests:

50m free 21.04sec (national record)
100m free 46.96sec (national record)
100m fly 49.50sec (world record)

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