Caeleb Dressel went to the 2019 World Championships hoping to claim a neck full of gold. He did that — and made history that surpasses Michael Phelps’s achievements in the process.
Dressel won eight total medals — six gold, two silver — over eight days in Gwangju, South Korea, establishing a new record for medals at one World Championships and once again stamping himself as the logical heir to Phelps’s title as the best swimmer in the world.
The eight medals broke a four-way tie between Dressel, Phelps, Australia’s Michael Klim, and American legend Matt Biondi, all of whom had won seven medals at one World Championships.
Dressel’s biggest night of the competition came on Saturday, as he won individual gold in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly in under an hour — recording the fourth-fastest time in history in the former, but merely posting history’s No. 2 time thanks to a prior scintillating performance in the latter — and then returned to the pool just an hour after that to lead off for the winning American mixed 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay team. The three-gold night matched a similar haul for Dressel at the 2017 World Championships: He is the only man to win three golds in one night of competition at the event twice, after previously being the only man to do that even once.
And Dressel’s 49.50-second time in the 100 fly semifinal was, at the time, perhaps the swim of the Worlds. That Friday blitz lowered the record from a 49.84 posted by Phelps back in 2009 — at a World Championships notorious for dozens of world-record times — and made Dressel’s final time of 49.66 on Saturday merely the second-fastest time in history.
But Dressel, having matched Phelps as the only men to win seven medals in one World Championships on Saturday, saved something special for his final swim on Sunday. In the men’s 4 x 100 medley relay, Dressel split his 100 meters of butterfly in an insane 49.28, lowering his own mark for fastest split in history set just days before in the mixed 4 x 100 medley relay.
Dressel thus swam the four best times ever seen in the 100 fly in one meet, as his two race times from the semifinal and final in the fly were better than Phelps’s fastest splits from relay events. And his dominance of the butterfly has now all but erased Phelps’s name from the top of the individual world record lists.
But one of the great ironies of this meet is that Dressel’s electric fly legs weren’t enough to lift the U.S. in either of those medley relays. Australia took advantage of an atypically poor swim from American Lilly King and got a superb finishing sprint from Cate Campbell to win the mixed relay by a mere .02 seconds over the Yanks, while Great Britain’s Duncan Scott pulled off an all-time shocker by hawking down Nathan Adrian with the second-fastest 100-meter split in history to overcome an even greater deficit than American Jason Lezak — holder of that fastest 100-meter split in history — did in his legendary final leg of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay in the 2008 Olympics.
And while Dressel is making history in his own right, surpassing Phelps in Worlds feats is a far, far cry from catching Phelps in terms of longevity and greatness. Dressel’s 13 golds at Worlds are still only half of the 26 Phelps acquired over the course of his career, and his 15 total Worlds medals are less than half of the 33 Phelps accrued. Dressel has also been able to tally medals through mixed-gender relays, events that did not exist during most of Phelps’s career and that would assuredly have padded his stats.
And Phelps was obviously even better at the Olympic level than at Worlds, with his historic 28 medals standing as both the most of any Olympian in history and a tally that Dressel would need tremendous durability and good luck to even approach.
Dressel has just two Olympic medals — both golds, and won in 2016 — to his name thus far, and while he will certainly be favored to win several more and maybe lead all Olympians in 2020 if he can maintain or improve on his current form, he would need an impressive four golds to have as many at 23 as Phelps did at 20.
Yet Dressel would be even further behind Phelps’s monstrous pace with “just” a quartet of golds, given that Phelps added eight more at the age of 24 in Beijing — setting seven world records in the process — and would win nine more golds over the next two Olympiads.
So Dressel is likely to have a career that will forever exist in the shadow of the greatest swimmer to ever live, much like that of fellow Gator Ryan Lochte.
But one school churning out arguably the second- and third-best swimmers ever sure would be something.