Last night’s Friday night in the United States was, of course, Saturday morning in Tokyo — that’s just how time works.
And on the night (morning?) Caeleb Dressel faced one of his most difficult stretches of just over an hour as an elite swimmer ever — that’s just how the 2020 Olympics swim program works.
But coming through it with stellar swims in three events that won one gold medal, established him as the favorite for another, and made him the sympathetic loser in a doomed effort in the third? That’s just how Dressel, king of the water, works.
Dressel began a stretch that would see him swim the final of the men’s 100-meter butterfly, the semifinal of the men’s 50-meter freestyle, and — as an anchor leg — the final of the 4 x 100 mixed medley relay begin staged for the first time ever at the Olympics. And while Dressel trying the triple was actually not new — he did so at 2019’s World Championships as part of a record-breaking week — it was about as ambitious as Olympic swim programs get, with three sprints in just about 90 minutes and two individual events in the first 45 or so.
Fortunately for Dressel, his talents still match his ambitions. After a devastating first 50 of the fly powered by the best start off the blocks in the field, he held off Hungary’s Kristof Milak’s fierce charge down the stretch, lowering his own world record by 0.05 seconds in claiming his second individual and third overall gold medal of these Games.
And about 45 minutes later, he thrashed through the pool in what had long been considered his best event, the “splash and dash” 50-meter freestyle that renders the entire pool a white wake for its 21 or so seconds. Dressel, swimming in the second semifinal, seemingly took advantage of a slow first heat and eased up just slightly in cruising to a 21.42-second performance — one simultaneously more than a tenth better than France’s multiple medalist Florent Manadou and almost four tenths slower than his personal best of 21.04 seconds.
If Dressel was conserving energy in that race — for the final, or for the MMR — he still got his needed result without needing the afterburners.
But an extra tank of high-octane probably wouldn’t have helped Dressel all that much in the mixed medley relay, as it turned out.
While Team USA’s Ryan Murphy — like Dressel, a Jacksonville-area native and an alumnus of the renowned Bolles Sharks club swim team — gave the Americans the lead with a fine 100 meters of backstroking from a wall start, the team faltered based on its construction, with surprise 100-meter gold medalist Lydia Jacoby’s nigh heroic breaststroke leg — she turned in a time close to her medal-winning one despite swimming most of the distance having knocked her goggles from her eyes —still losing the U.S. about eight seconds to Great Britain.
After a fairly pedestrian butterfly leg from Torri Huske, Dressel closed with a ferocious 46.99 in his freestyle — not just the fastest leg of the race, but the fastest by nearly five seconds — that brought the Americans from dead last to fifth, but had no chance of seeing them to the medal podium.
The relay struggles have been perhaps the most perplexing and frustrating aspect of an up-and-down Olympics for the U.S. in the pool, with the expected performances from stars like Dressel and Katie Ledecky winning individual honors but not translating to top-of-podium relay success that Team USA has considered its destiny since the dawn of the modern Games. Dressel’s omission from the 4 x 100 relay final earlier in the week almost certainly cost a podium visit in that race, while many other MMR lineup constructions represent what might have been for the Americans there.
But with the legendary Ledecky getting silvers after losing duels in her rivalry with Aussie Ariarne Titmus and the otherworldly Simone Biles grounded by gymnastics’ version of the yips, Dressel’s individual performance has been maybe the shining breakthrough of the Games for not just the U.S. but all countries. He’s two-for-two on golds and records through two individual finals, and seems poised to hunt at least the Olympic record in the 50 free while acquiring his third individual gold in the event — a haul that would match Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, who have the only other three-gold Olympiads ever.
And if Dressel and the American men can somehow wrest gold from the dominating Brits in the 4 x 100 free relay, a five-gold trip to Tokyo is still in play.
But while Phelps benefited from having reliable relay sidekicks like Ryan Lochte and Nathan Adrian and an exceedingly deep bench of relay pinch-hitters — like Jason Lezak, author of the exhilarating close to the 4 x 100 free relay back in Beijing — in his Olympic trips that often felt like avalanches of gold, a slightly less deep and America-dominant cycle of swimmers hurting Team USA’s ability to surround workhorses like Dressel and Ledecky with relay aces and pick up more medals on the margins.
It’s hard to say that Dressel walking away from Tokyo with just four gold medals would be anything but spectacular, but as a captain of a team suddenly swimming into the churn when it comes to relay performance, he may feel they were left high and dry.
Gator Nation at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (through July 30, 2021)
- Gold medals: Caeleb Dressel, men’s 100-meter freestyle, men’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay, and men’s 100-meter butterfly (United States); Bobby Finke, men’s 800-meter freestyle (United States)
- Silver medals: Michelle Moultrie, Aubree Munro, Kelsey Stewart, women’s softball (United States)
- Bronze medals: Kieran Smith, men’s 400-meter freestyle (United States); Natalie Hinds, women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay
- Total traditional medal count: Four gold, one silver, two bronze, seven total
- Total individual medals earned: Four gold, three silver, two bronze, nine total
- Gator Nation medal count placement: 11th, behind New Zealand and ahead of Germany