Inside Caeleb Dressel's historic five gold medals in Tokyo: 'Oh, f—, this is gonna suck today'

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TOKYO — Caeleb Dressel had already done everything under the Japanese sun when, a little before noon here on Sunday, shortly after receiving his fourth gold medal of these Olympics, he dove into a Tokyo Aquatics Center pool one final time.

Only three male swimmers had ever won a fifth gold medal at a single Games.

To join the club, Dressel would have to erase a deficit. He took on the third leg of the men’s 4x100 medley relay, an Olympic event the U.S. had never lost, with his team in third place.

And he’d been thinking about the microscopic margins of these moments, the unparalleled stakes tied to hundredths of seconds. “It is a lot different here. It's a different type of pressure,” he said of the Olympics. “I'm pretty aware of that now. I'll stop lying to myself. It means something different. I mean, an event that happens every four years, for a race that happens in 40-something seconds, or 20-something seconds. You have to be so perfect.

“Your whole life boils down to a moment that can take 20, 40 seconds. How crazy is that?”

The thought, he said, was “terrifying.” He’d avoided it during competition, but of course it loomed throughout a grueling week, before and in between his 12 races. It tweaked his nerves. Pressure amplified fatigue. It’s why his first emotion upon waking up in the morning here in Tokyo wasn’t always excitement. “Sometimes,” he said, “it was, ‘Oh, f—, this is gonna suck today.’ ”

Caeleb Dressel's mindset is a big part of the reason joined an exclusive club as a male swimmer with five gold medals at one Olympics. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Caeleb Dressel's mindset is a big part of the reason joined an exclusive club as a male swimmer with five gold medals at one Olympics. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

“It's a lot of stress you put on your body,” Dressel explained. “It's not the most enjoyable process.

“But it is worth it. Every part of it is worth it. Just because it's bad doesn't mean it's not worth it.”

It’s worth it because it’s required to win five Olympic gold medals and break multiple world records, all in the span of a week. That’s what Dressel did here. On Sunday, 24 hours after topping his own top mark in the 100-meter butterfly with an admittedly imperfect swim, he attacked the fly again, this time as part of the medley relay team. He went 100 meters faster than any human being ever had; and over a second faster than any of his peers in the medley final; and fast enough to attach his name to another world record.

On Saturday night, he and his teammates had been told that it was within reach. USA Swimming head coach Dave Durden and managing director Lindsay Mintenko had pulled aside their four picks for the relay. Dressel, Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew and Zach Apple sat on a bench. Durden and Mintenko laid out a simple proposition: If all could swim the times they’d already swum in individual events throughout the week, collectively, they could take down the record.

And on Sunday, Murphy did his part.

Andrew did his part.

Apple, ultimately, did his part.

But their parts were sufficient because Dressel, for years, obsessed over self-betterment. Chipped away at his world-leading times. Michael Phelps’ 49.72-second butterfly relay split had stood as the best ever for a decade. Dressel bettered it twice in 2019, and then set out, day after day, to get even better. It’s how he operates. “Every swim, you can always go faster,” he said this week.

On Sunday, he went 49.03, a little over an hour after setting a new Olympic record of 21.07 in the 50-meter free. He claimed his fourth and fifth golds in Tokyo. His body felt drained. His emotions too. “I'm pretty over swimming, guys,” he said.

But he was proud. He knew he’d joined rare company. The three others with five-plus golds at a single Olympics were Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi. “For me to have my little stamp on the sport, of course it's special,” Dressel said.

“I feel like I've already exceeded my expectations here,” he continued. “I'm happy with what I did. I had a really fun time doing it.” And he’d later speak about the fun that the outside world never sees, the poker games, the team-building, the things that make this experience unique. “That's when we become Team USA,” he said. “It's the stupid little moments.”

But for now, he completed his thought with a window into his greatness, into the ultimate growth mindset that drives him: “I know I can be better. It wasn't a perfect meet at all.”

He knows that the outside world will obsess over the medals, the times, the numbers. “It's not about the medals,” Dressel said. “Nothing comes of that if you don't learn anything from moments like this. I feel like I can walk away from this meet a better swimmer, not because of the hardware I'm bringing home, because of what I've learned. I can be proud of every swim, every effort I put in the water, every mental approach to every single race. I can be proud of that.

“And I can take notes moving forward.”

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