FINA’s 2019 Male Swimmer of the Year is American Caeleb Dressel – but the 23-year-old Florida native would probably be the last person to congratulate himself after etching his place in history by posting the three most defining results of the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Despite becoming the first swimmer to win eight medals at a single swimming world championship edition (surpassing the seven he won in 2017), despite winning three world championship gold medals in one night (for the second time in his career), and despite lopping 0.32 seconds off Michael Phelps’s 10-year-old world record in the 100m butterfly, Dressel told FINA Magazine in an exclusive interview in mid-December: “A lot of people think I had a great year. I don’t think it was great. I think it was good. I was happy with world championships, but not satisfied.”

 “I was hungry to get back in the water, to start training again and looking for ways to improve. I don’t ever want to get complacent. I know it could have been better. As soon as Worlds ended, I was already in 2020. 

“My mindset right now is not Olympics,” however, he said by phone from his training base in Florida, two weeks after proposing marriage to his long-time girlfriend, Meghan Haila. 

“It’s on the little steps along the way,” Dressel said. “It’s having a great practice tomorrow morning and trying to improve in those two hours, then moving on and having a great day. It’s really like having a flashlight in front of you and making sure you’re taking the right steps toward the light at the end of the tunnel.”

During the conversation, Dressel also shed light on the place where he feels most vulnerable, why he doesn’t like anyone to watch him practise, the 2018 setback that improved his swimming, the details he withheld from his coach until this year, why he carries around four notebooks, and how a blue bathroom affected his competitive drive. Here is how the conversation unfolded.

 I work better on a minute-by-minute basis

Where are you right now? 

I’m still at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I haven’t graduated but my [NCAA] eligibility was done in 2018. My major is resources and conservation. It’s in the agriculture department. 

You were engaged on November 29 and your fiancée is also a swimmer. Is she still competing? 

Meghan and I swam at Bolles together, in the late-night group because we didn’t go to school there. She mainly did breaststroke but she stopped competing her sophomore year [at Florida State University in Tallahassee], to pursue her dream of becoming a child-family counsellor. She’s in her second year of graduate school at UF. This is the first time we’ve lived in the same city since we’ve been dating.

2019 was a spectacular season for you – one of many spectacular seasons. Now it’s December. Have you taken a moment to look back? Why or why not? 

The day the world championships ended, I was happy but by no means satisfied with my performance. I’m not going back and dissecting that meet now. That was already done during the meet, race after race, session after session with [coach Gregg] Troy. What’s learned is already learned. I’m moving on. It’s not just with that meet. It’s the same with every meet I’ve had since I’ve been swimming. I work better on a minute-by-minute basis.

What are a few things you’re currently working on – flaws you’d like to correct? And, on the flip side, what do you think you do exceptionally well? 

I come to practice every day with the mindset that I’m there to get better. I don’t like when people watch my practices or record my practice because, for me, that’s a very emotional time. That’s my window to improve and I just want it to be between me, my team-mates and my coach. I take practice very serious. When I have a good practice, it’s usually going to be a good day. When I have a bad practice, I usually have trouble sleeping at night. My ability to focus can also hurt me. When I come off a meet, I hold on to things I should have done better, rather than the things I did good. [Gregg] Troy does a good job of talking me through that, and if Troy says it’s a good meet then I know I need to shut my mouth and move on. So my downfall and my strongest point is my ability to focus and my mindset that I’m there to get better. 

Is there any improvement that you’re particularly proud of? If so, which stroke and what was the change? 

I wouldn’t say any particular stroke. At this point in my career, it’s learning to balance swimming with work: the media stuff, the appearances – handling that better, knowing that it is a job. I realise I’m very lucky to make a career out of something that I love. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without swimming. I’m obsessed with trying to get better. Simple as that. 

Money can complicate a lot of things

Is it true that in 2018 you had an injury that required you to turn without touching the wall? If so, what was the injury, what happened, and how did you work around it? 

It wasn’t an injury per se. I had minor surgery on my big toe to reattach a ligament that had been detached since high school. It was more annoying than painful. Occasionally it would dislocate. I’d been dealing with it for six years. I thought it was a good year to get it re-attached. I would have been fine the rest of my life if it didn’t get fixed. But I was ready to have my body in one piece. We worked around it in the weight room. I still did leg exercises. I just avoided putting pressure on my foot. 

How did the surgery compromise your swimming? 

I couldn’t really push off the walls for maybe four or six weeks. Everything I did was from a dead stop because I didn’t want to just push off my left leg and have it get a lot stronger [than the right]. So I did most of my stuff before the turn, then started again from a dead stop. For the most part, I think I benefited from it. I got really good at pulling. I got really good at generating speed from a dead stop. If anything, it was a plus. 

You mentioned that swimming is your job now. What do you think is the biggest misconception – or a misconception – about being a professional swimmer? 

I think money. Money can complicate a lot of things. I’ve never been a fan of media stuff, I’m sorry. If it were up to me, it would be me, the water, my training, coach Troy and my team-mates, and that’s it. I don’t want to be famous. I just want to see how far I can take what I’ve been given and try to reach my maximum potential. That’s it. I never want to lose the mindset of an age grouper whose only worry is going best times. Honestly, if I finish second in a heat and go a best time, I’m probably going to be pretty happy. 

Have you ever hit a plateau or a moment when you weren’t getting best times? If so, when? How long? And how did you get through it? 

My biggest fear in the sport is plateauing. I don’t think I have plateaued. If I have a bad meet or a bad year, it doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway. The meets and practices that are really a struggle, I think, is where I learn the most. Some of the darkest places I’ve been to in the sport, when you’re really struggling, you learn a lot about yourself. So if I’m not going best times anymore, I wouldn’t say, ‘Let me bail on the sport.’ If I reach a point where I don’t think I’m learning anything, then I’ll step away. But the way I operate, I know that day will never come.  

The place where I’m most vulnerable is at practice

Speaking of learning, how many coaches have you had in your career besides Gregg Troy? I mean significant coaches, not one-day coaches. 

Any coach I’ve had has been significant, all the way back to P.E. coaches. Coaches are very special people. Besides Troy, I’ve had Steve [Jungbluth], [Anthony] Nesty, [Martyn] Wilby, Matt [DeLancey] my strength coach, Jason Traylor, assistant strength coaches. Paula, Josh at U.F. In high school I had coach Jason [Calanog], Sergio [Lopez]. Before that, I had coach Sean, coach Porter… 

Wait, you just listed at least 12 coaches. 

Yes, and that’s just in swimming. There’s been some from ages 4 and 5 whose names slip in my mind. I don’t overlook any coach just because I’m not currently working with them. They’ve all put effort into getting me to this point in my career. Even my physical education coaches during volleyball in gym class; I still consider that coaching. It’s a very important role; I don’t take it lightly. We [athletes] are our most vulnerable around them. The place where I’m most vulnerable is at practice. That’s where I don’t hold anything back. That’s where I feel I can really be myself, with all my emotions on my sleeve. I walk on deck, and there’s nothing I can hide. Coaches know if I’ve had a bad day. I wear it on my face. I walk in and Troy’s like, ‘Agh, he’s had a rough day or it’s been a rough week.’ It takes a special person to do that and not just think: What set can I give this kid to make him improve? Instead, it’s: Let me read his body language, let me talk with him, let me put all this emotional energy into this kid so I can try to maximise his potential. It’s the same thing with teachers. 

In fact, you still honour one of your high school math teachers, Claire McCool, by carrying one of her blue and black bandanas with cows on it, right? She died in 2017 of breast cancer and you take it to swim meets as a way to keep her close?

Yes, ma’am. 

Aside from coaches and teachers, are there any particular swimmers you like to learn from? 

I’ve never had one swimmer in particular to where I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s my guy; this is the guy I want to develop all my strokes after.’ But there’s Ryan Lochte, of course. I’ve studied his underwater kick. When I swim next to him in practice I’ll occasionally stop what I’m doing, look up and try to copy some of what he’s doing. I’m even taking things from Ryan’s backstroke. I don’t swim backstroke at all. But he’s got one of the smoothest, easiest strokes I’ve ever seen. Who else? [My mixed relay team-mate] Mallory Comerford’s 100 free. She does a great job of putting her head down in the last 15 metres – and TRULY the last 15 metres. I used to put my head down around the 12-metre mark, then I saw her do it and I was like, ‘Dang! I have to try 15 instead of cheating up towards the 12-metre mark.’ I’ve watched Michael Phelps’ front-end catch of the butterfly even though we have very different strokes. It’s not all just technique, either. I like Katie Ledecky’s mental game and how she approaches each meet. I think I’m very similar to her in that all she would want at the end of the day is: her, the pool and her coach. I can relate to Katie that way. But really, there’s anybody! I mean, even at stroke clinics I do, I’ll tell the kids, who could be ages 8 to 18, ‘I’ll consider this a successful day if ya’ll learn something and I learn something from you.’ In swimming, there could be something an 8-year-old is doing better than me. I truly believe that. There’s no shame in taking something that an 8-year-old’s doing and trying to learn from that.

If Troy sees that potential in me then, gosh darn, it’s gotta be true

Back to Michael Phelps’ butterfly catch. Can you describe how he enters and how you enter? What is the difference?

We have very different strokes, honestly: different kicks, different-sized arms, different-sized chest, shoulders. He has a totally different body than me. I mean, he’s a completely different human. When I watch people do things, I’m not trying to copy it. What works for someone else might not work for me but I’m more than happy to try different stroke techniques I’ve seen other swimmers use or different mental techniques that I’ve read about in books, and see if it works for me. Maybe it’ll work halfway and I’ll make additional changes to fit my body and my stroke better. It’s all about learning.

Have you ever tried something that turned out to be a complete disaster? 

Never a complete disaster, but I dabbled with trying to do straight-arm freestyle when I was in high school. At this point, I think I’ve kind of honed in on my exact stroke and kick count, but two years ago, in 100 fly, I had a different stroke count and kick count when I put my head down going to the walls, and when I put my head down going into the last 15 metres. It’s always changing. I never say, ‘This is what I’m doing from now until the end of my career.’ I will have a set race plan before I go into the water; I know exactly what I’m going to do. But after that meet, I’m not scared to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should change this.’ It’s fun to try new things. I get very bored sometimes. That’s why I swim a lot of different events in-season. 

What was your 100 fly kick count and stroke count in 2017 compared to 2019? 

Off the start, I was doing 6 kicks and 17 strokes to the wall, turn, then 7 kicks off the wall and 19 strokes coming home. In 2019, I added a kick off the second wall so it was 6 kicks off the start, 17 strokes to get down the pool, then I jammed the turn so it really should have been 16 strokes. Then 8 kicks off the second wall, 19 strokes coming home – and it was a better finish. So my strokes are definitely getting stronger. Less strokes means you’re pulling more water. And in my 100 freestyle, I believe I now have two less strokes compared to 2017. It might even be less than that.

Michael Phelps was meticulous about writing down his goals. Are you the same way? Do you have time targets? 

Yeah, I do, and this was my first year sharing them with Troy. It was funny because some of the goal times he had were actually faster than what I had written down. That’s always a plus: when the person you’re working with closely has a higher standard than yourself. I love that! I want to chase that. If Troy sees that potential in me then, gosh darn, it’s gotta be true. 

I’m curious: what made you want to share it? Why this year? Was there something that happened this year that made you want to share your time goals with Gregg? 

I don’t know. I’ve always been guarded about my goal times. They’re not for public viewing. They’re not hanging in my room. They’re closed away at the front of my practice log book. I’m on year five or six with Troy. I’ve always trusted him. You just adapt and grow over time and I just felt this year I wanted to share my goal times. I don’t have a better explanation than that.

No one gets to read the journal except me

I understand you write more than just log book. Is writing a new habit? 

My newest thing is a podcast notebook. Me and my friend Ben do a little podcast, and if there’s anything I want to touch on in the podcast, I’ll jot it down in a book. I’m very forgetful unless I write stuff down, so I write all my stuff down. But my main three are a journal, a practice log and a quote book. 

How long have you been keeping the other three books?

I’ve been keeping practice logs since high school for statistical stuff and technique stuff. I write down what we did in practice, long course or short course, how I was feeling, the times I went, then close the page, move on and not reminisce – which is important because sometimes I focus too much on the bad. Then there’s the journal. I write in my journal every night. It’s usually the last thing I do before getting into bed. It’s for any anxious thoughts I’ve had, what I did that day, who I did it with, if I had a good time. No one gets to read the journal except me. Again, when I close the pages, the problems – good or bad – are over, I learn from it, and move on. No one’s ever opened up that book except me. Then I have a quote book which I’ve been keeping since high school as well. If I hear or see good quotes, I jot them in that book. Quotes can come from billboards, street graffiti, it doesn’t matter. If you open your eyes, there’s a lot of places we can learn from. Those are my main four. They’re all different sizes and shapes, but my practice log has always been a composition book because that’s what my high school coach Jason Calanog told me to get, so that’s what I’ve been rockin’ with ever since. 

Family: you’re the third-oldest of four kids. Did all four of you swim for a university? 

My older brother, Tyler, did not. My older sister, Kaitlyn, swam at FSU. My younger sister, Sherridan, and I swam two years together at UF before my eligibility exhausted.

Were you all hyper-competitive with each other? Or not at all? 

We’re all good friends now. We love each other but we didn’t like each other. We’ve always been competitive. The best example of this is what really honed my competitive spirit. We grew up in Green Cove Springs, Florida, about 45 minutes south of Jacksonville. It’s a very small town of 7,000 or 8,000 people. We had a 2,000 square foot home with six people in it, so we grew up well. There was enough space. But there was only one bathroom for the four of us kids. We called it ‘Blue Bath’ because it had a blue toilet, a blue bathtub, and all the tiles were blue. The problem was, it only had a 40-gallon water heater so there was only enough hot water for one shower. Whoever got up earliest got the only hot shower. Since Tyler would always get it, I learned to not shower in the mornings. But on the way home from practice, we’d all get in the car and be: ‘I call blue bath!’ which means you got first dibs on the shower when you got home. So I credit my competitive spirit to my siblings and a blue bathtub. 

I never want to lose the mindset of an age grouper whose only worry is going best times.

*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2020/2) click here.