Florida's Caeleb Dressel has established himself as one of the best young sprinters in the swimming world throughout his prep and collegiate career. On Wednesday at the 2016 SEC Championships, he topped even any lofty expectations for him as the defending NCAA champion in the 50-yard freestyle, blazing the distance in 18.39 seconds in a preliminary heat — and setting new school, SEC, NCAA, American, and world records in the process.
Then, in Wednesday evening's final, Dressel did it again.
The 50-yard freestyle isn't an Olympic event, because it's a "short-course" event — swimmers race it in 25-yard pools, touching one end and returning, while Olympic pools are all "long-course" 50-meter pools. But the 50-yard freestyle is a mainstay in American swimming at the prep and collegiate levels, and both of Dressel's times are significantly better than the pre-existing American record, an 18.66-second time clocked by three-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian back in 2011. His blistering 18.23 is far better than the 18.47-second U.S. Open record held by Brazil's César Cielo, himself an Olympic gold medalist.
FINA, swimming's governing body, does not sanction world records in events held in 25-yard short-course pools, only ones in 25-meter short-course pools. But USA Swimming does keep track of 25-yard short-course records — and Dressel's times are the fastest ever at that distance.
Whether he can turn this into a run in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics remains to be seen. Cielo holds the world record for the 50-meter freestyle (20.94), and Adrian holds the American record (21.37). But Dressel sprinted a 21.53 in the 50-meter freestyle to win gold at the 2015 U.S. Nationals, and that was the No. 4 time in the world in the event in 2015, ranking just behind Adrian, Brazilian Bruno Flatus, and Frenchman Florent Manadou, who figure to be the favorites to win gold in Rio.
If Dressel can translate his record-setting form on short courses to bigger pools, though, he might not be behind them for long. And given that no American has won gold in the 50 free since Gary Hall, Jr. in 2004, it would be one heck of an accomplishment.