Old Gregg Troy described it with his proverbial Puritan laconicism: “They pushed him so hard and he pushed himself so hard that he broke down.”
This Saturday morning, Caeleb Dressel, the fastest shirtless swimmer in history, the man who covered the distances of 50 and 100 meters at the fastest speed without wearing a polyurethane swimsuit, becomes after overcoming the worst of his depression.
Victim of a perfectionist and cruel spirit, he molested himself after winning five Olympic gold medals at the Tokyo Games, something only Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, their sport’s most inaccessible myths, had achieved. “The monumental moment in a swimmer’s life is the Olympics, an event that happens every four years and where my longest event is 49 seconds,” Dressel said, explaining the kind of emptiness he fell into after his apotheosis in Tokyo was a year ago. “I felt so lost! I wanted to get out of the water forever, but I knew the water was one of my safe places. He was between a rock and a hard spot. I felt miserable for a few months.”
The Florida boy, 25, confessed to journalist Graham Bensinger What tormented him the most was that he couldn’t beat his top marks in the 50 and 100 meter freestyle despite winning tests. “It wasn’t fair to me,” he said. “Absolutely. I had just won five gold medals on the biggest stage and just thought I should have been swimming faster.”
By Christmas 2021, the US team’s most successful athlete prostrated in his room without wanting anything. A well he’s known since he started suffering from panic attacks and melancholy in his senior year of high school. Christina, his mother, confessed on American television like someone who practices catharsis: “He locked himself in his room with the blinds down and refused to eat. He didn’t want to be around people. I was in a deep depression.”
This time was no different. He slowly got over it based on psychologists, gyms and swimming pools. “In late January I saw myself lifting some weights that I had never lifted in my life,” he said; “And already I felt fit again.”
Seeking new sensations, Dressel left Gregg Troy to join the group of Anthony Nesty, a former Olympic butterfly runner and head coach at the University of Florida in Jacksonville. Under Nesty’s direction, responsible for the preparation of Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith, American swimming in Tokyo regained ground lost for years in endurance events and formed a magnet on the hot Atlantic seaboard. Not only Dressel felt the call of the shoal. Stanford graduate Katie Ledecky crossed the continent to Jacksonville as a professional swimmer and assistant to Nesty on the university coaching staff.
In Budapest, neither Emma McKeon, winner of seven medals in Tokyo, nor Ariarne Titmus, world record holder in the 400m, will be the best swimmers of the last Games. Both have preferred to base their preparations for July’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. This clears the way for Ledecky, who at the age of 25 has gained so much experience that she has taken on the face of a foreign minister. His challenge has much in common with a propaganda campaign in these warlike times. If he wins his fifth straight world title in the 800-meter freestyle, the grades will be over The Stars and Stripes they will have a special resonance when played alongside Orbán’s Danube, in Putin’s spectrum of influence.
Kristif Milak, the challenger
Ledecky, like local hero Katinka Hosszu in the individual medley, dreams of being included in the list of swimmers who have won five consecutive world championships in one discipline. Only three have made it so far: Grant Hackett in the 1,500m, Ryan Lochte in the 200m IM and Sun Yang in the 400m free.
The pantheon of the most tenacious and reliable still does not belong to Dressel, who was so often paralyzed by episodes of emotional disturbance in his youth. The Duna Arena cannot be a cheaper venue. In its waters, Dressel became the fastest man alive during the 2017 World Championships. There he set the American record in the 100m freewheel and became the first there to be world champion three times in one day: 100 butterfly, 50 freewheel and 4×100 relay.
Five years ago in Budapest, Dressel equaled Phelps’ record of seven gold medals at World Championships in 2007. His return to where he started completes a brilliant circle. Repeating the four individual gold medals in the 50s and 100s free and 50s and 100s butterfly, as he did in 2017, 2019 and 2021, seems an easier task than in Tokyo. The retirement of Australian sprinter Kyle Chalmers leaves him with a lone challenger at the height of his prestige. Kristof Milak, the Hungarian butterfly king and 200m world record holder, promises the closest race on the programme: the 100m final, scheduled for Friday 24th.