Anyone who has followed the races of swimming phenomenon Caeleb Dressel at the Tokyo Olympics in recent days cannot have missed him: the bandana. Every time the American took the podium to receive a medal, he put his left hand inside his track pants, grabbed the blue piece of cloth and wrapped it around his hand. This also applies to his victories on Sunday in the 50-meter freestyle (in an Olympic record) and the 4×100-meter medley relay (in a world record). His fourth and fifth title in Tokyo already, after he previously triumphed in the 100 free, the 4×100 free and the 100 meter butterfly (also with a world record). Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe called him “the best male athlete since Michael Phelps” for good reason. Phelps won 23 gold medals at the 2004-2016 Games.
But that bandana. Most people think it’s superstition. But for Dressel (24), it’s much more, says his former coach Justin Faulkner at Clay High School in Florida. “Dressel got the bandana from his math teacher’s husband after she died of breast cancer. Claire wore bandanas while exercising.” By taking the piece of cloth to competitions, Dressel honors the woman he considered his mentor.
Faulkner, now headmaster at another school, coached Dressel for four years, from the age of fourteen. “He was head and shoulders above the others in terms of talent,” he says. “But what really made him special is that he shared his success with everyone and didn’t feel too good for anyone. In the water he was in front, but outside the bath he was next to you. He always made sure that no one felt left out.”
Dressel started swimming when he was five. His parents signed him up for swimming lessons, something he initially did not like. But soon his mother sensed an urge to assert himself in him. She often tells journalists the story that as a toddler he went to the pool in Jacksonville with his older brother. He dived into the open lane next to his brother, swam across and shouted, “I’ve won a medal!”
Initially Dressel combined swimming with soccer and American football, but that turned out to be unfeasible. When he began to focus on swimming from the age of twelve, he immediately made greater progress. In 2011, he won the national junior championships. Two years later at the youth World Cup, he won gold in the 100-meter free and bronze in the 50-meter free. Then came the Rio Olympics.
At his Olympic debut in 2016, he won the 4×100-meter free and the 4×100-meter substitution with experienced and famous colleagues such as Phelps and Ryan Held, but in the 100-meter free he was ‘only’ sixth. In any case, that experience gave him a huge boost. At the next two World Cups, in Budapest (2017) and Gwangju (2019), he won seven and six world titles in succession.
Dressel’s underwater phase is particularly impressive. In the 100 meters, his six dolphin kicks and his first two arm strokes account for 80 percent of the race, he once said. Dressel is increasingly compared – against his will – with compatriot Phelps.
In swimming, Phelps is the greatest of all timesDressel told the American news channel CBS last week, who wanted to know whether that comparison gives him pressure, especially now that Phelps is not participating in the Olympics for the first time since 2000. How could he feel pressure, Dressel said, when you know that a swimmer like Phelps only comes around once in a million years? And just to be clear, he hadn’t come to Japan to count medals. “I’m in Japan to perform for my country.”
Dressel has changed according to his environment during the pandemic. He is still as focused as before, but realizes that there is more to life than swimming. “He is not his swimming,” his wife Meghan said just before the Games USA Today. “He likes it, but it’s not who he is.”
When the sport stopped, Dressel followed it with his father and sisters Appalachian trail, a long-distance hiking trail in the Smokey Mountains. He met new people and for the first time in a long time had the peace to think. “A lot of people ask me about the Rio Olympics,” he told USA Today. “It was great, but it didn’t change my life. The Appalachian trail has that.”
Since then, he has thrown his phone into a corner more often and he says even more emphatically to journalists that he has nothing to do with fame. And yet Dressel visibly enjoyed all the attention on Sunday for his special performance in Japan. You could see him smiling broadly from behind his mask. Only four swimmers before him won five gold medals at the same Games: Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Kristin Otto. And that while Caeleb Dressel does not seem to have reached his peak yet.