Caeleb Dressel, after a long battle with perfectionism, will complete his comeback at 2024 Olympics

Caeleb Dressel, the inked-up Olympic star who in 2022 became his sport's greatest enigma, will get the chance to defend at least one of his individual gold medals at the 2024 Games in Paris.

Dressel won the 50-meter freestyle at U.S. swimming trials on Friday, and qualified for the event at the Olympics later this summer.

It was Dressel's second of three finals this week at trials in Indianapolis. In all three, he is the reigning Olympic champion. In the first, the 100-meter free, he finished third, earning a spot on the U.S. 4x100 relay team in Paris, but narrowly missing out on the chance to defend his gold in the individual event.

In his second of three events, though, the "splash and dash" 50 free, Dressel sped to the wall and out-touched all competitors. He finished in 21.41 seconds, 0.28 — a relative eternity in this race — ahead of Chris Guiliano, who qualified in second.

As his wife, Meghan, celebrated in the stands with their months-old baby in her arms, Dressel pumped his fist, and saluted the crowd of 18,474 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Feeling the love from everyone," he later said, was "really special."

And it contributed to a key piece of his comeback. This week at trials, Dressel said, has "just been fun."

Dressel, now 27, won five gold medals in Tokyo. At world championships the following summer, in his first two swims of the meet, he won the 14th and 15th worlds golds of his decorated career. But then, with more medals on the table, he abruptly pulled out of the meet. And for months, at least to the public eye, he disappeared.

Dressel has since explained, albeit sparingly, that he was "completely broken" mentally. His "inner critic," as he called the harsh voice in his head, had dragged him down to a dark place. For years, he had battled his own perfectionism, which he now realizes is a double-edged sword — because it made him great but also miserable.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 21: Caeleb Dressel of the United States reacts after winning the the Men's 50m freestyle final on Day Seven of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 21, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning the the men's 50-meter freestyle final at U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nearly every time he touched the wall, no matter how fast he was or what medal he won, he'd ask himself: What could I have done better?

Even in Tokyo, after one of his five golds, his first thought was: "I messed up both my turn and my finish."

On the 12-hour plane ride home, he thought about his head position and the last 15 meters of his 100 free.

"I was actually disappointed and frustrated with how I did," Dressel would later say on the Unfiltered Waters podcast.

He knows it sounds ridiculous. But he'd become "so programmed, day in and day out, to just demand excellence from [himself]," he said on the podcast. "And when you fall short of that, it's really hard to let it slide.” He'd chase stretch goals and specific times; when he didn't quite hit them, he'd beat himself up for it. Even at his peak, in 2019 — when he broke a world record, narrowly missed two others, and didn't lose a single race at worlds — he was "miserable."

The critic had pushed him toward greatness ... but also unhappiness. “I created a monster in myself — just so caught up in perfectionism," he explained on the podcast. "And so caught up in, 'If I don't see these times, it means I'm a bad person, or it means I did not train hard enough. If I don't go a world record, it means ... I didn't obsess enough.'”

"It eventually broke me," he continued, "to where I couldn't keep up with what my own demands were."

The only solution, come 2022, was to step back from the sport.

"I was lost," Dressel said. He'd spend entire days at his home in Florida, doing virtually nothing. "I pretty much just went to therapy to figure out the mess."

With his therapist, he dove deep into who he was and how he thought. He had to re-learn how to talk to himself. He had to do it less for his swimming career, more so for his life.

For months, he wanted nothing to do with the sport. He'd avoid the University of Florida pool where he used to train, and the smell of chlorine. He'd ride around on his lawnmower, letting his mind roam.

And it was there, on the mower, in the yard at his vast Gainesville farm, that he came to terms with potentially never swim again — which is how he knew he was ready to come back.

He returned slowly, first with three practices a week, then four, under the guidance of coach Anthony Nesty at Florida.

"He didn't want to do that," Nesty says of the gradual ramp-up; Dressel, Nesty told Yahoo Sports, wanted to accelerate. But Nesty told him: "No sir. Let's do it my way." They went 100 by 100, week by week, eventually from four practices up to five.

And Dressel was hurting. "Oh my gosh, that trek back was rough," he said on the podcast. "Really rough." But he loved it.

By the summer of 2023, he'd worked his way back into contention for world championships, but missed out on qualifying. He returned to the pool in the fall, and set his sights on the 2024 Olympics. On Dec. 1, after roughly 17 months without a win, he took first in the 100-meter butterfly at a U.S. Open meet. And it wasn't just the win or the time that screamed, I'm back; it was the big, genuine smile.

For months thereafter, he stuck to Nesty's plan. There were bumps in the road, and aches along the way, but they arrived at trials confident. "There's certain athletes, when they decide to take over a game, they take it over," Nesty said in May, comparing Dressel to a basketball or soccer star. Dressel, the idea was, could take over a race, even if he hadn't climbed back to his physical peak.

And sure enough, on the third-to-last night of trials, he did.

His third and final event at trials is the 100-meter butterfly, for which he'll be seeded first after a strong semifinal swim Friday. If he finishes top-two, he could yet reclaim four of the five medals he won three years ago in Tokyo.

He is not yet back to his 2019 or 2021 times; and he may never be. Nor has he completely silenced his inner critic; the merciless thoughts still exist in his head. "I've had some very low lows," Dressel said Friday of his experience at trials. "There's parts in my hotel room that aren't on camera, talking with my wife, talking with my therapist — it has not been smooth sailing this whole meet."

But he has learned, it seems, to moderate the thoughts. And most importantly, he said, "I really feel like I'm loving this sport."

The cherry on top, next month, will be a third Olympics.