Five years ago Caeleb Dressel was the youngest male entered in the 2012 US Olympic Trials at age 15. He recalled the bursts of fire on both sides of the pool and the red-white-and blue coloured waterfall used as the backdrop for each new Olympian selected for the US Olympic team.

Less memorable were his own performances, a tie for 145th, out of 167 finishers, in the 50m freestyle and tied for 152nd in the 100m freestyle. Dressel chose to sit by himself in the stands, away from his parents Christina and Michael and even from swim coach Sergio Lopez of the Bolles School.

Dressel recalled watching how some of the best swimmers in the world went about their business.

“I was in awe of everything,” he said.

“It makes you hungry when you see people making the team, and you’re just sitting in the stands thinking that maybe four years from now I can be doing that. Making the US Olympic team one day became a goal of mine.”

Dressel took six months off from swimming.

“I wasn’t even thinking about swimming during that period, not at all. I didn’t want to touch water and I didn’t touch water. I didn’t even think about touching water.”

“It was such a blast”

Four years after the 2012 Olympic Trials, Dressel would qualify as a member of the US team that would be competing at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and won his first gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay.

In the final, he swam the second fastest leadoff leg in 48.10 and was followed by teammates Michael Phelps, Ryan Held, and Nathan Adrian, their relay finishing in a time of 3:09.92.

In Rio Dressel finished sixth in the final of the 100m freestyle in a time of 48.02. Swimming in the heats of the 4x100m medley relay, Dressel earned his second Olympic gold medal when the USA finished first in the finals. He recorded a freestyle split of 47.74 in the heats.

On the first day of the FINA World Championships competition, Dressel set the American record in the 50m butterfly in a time of 22.76, recording the fastest of the semi-finals. Later that evening in the 4x100m freestyle relay, Dressel set the American record in the 100 metre freestyle with a time of 47.26 in the leadoff leg.

Combined with Townley Haas, Blake Pieroni, and Nathan Adrian, the American team won gold with a time of 3:10.06, earning him his first gold medal of the Championships.

When Dressel arrived at the post competition press conference in the Danube Arena on the last Saturday of July he apologised to the patiently waiting media: “Thank you guys for waiting for me, sorry, I was busy”.

Busy indeed, Dressel became the first swimmer to win three gold medals on a single night at the World Championships.

The USA’s newest rising star has just accomplished a ‘hat trick’ by racing and winning three events during the span of about two hours. His performance drew comparisons to his 2016 teammate Michael Phelps who retired after the Rio Olympic Games. Dressel was the winner of the gold medal in the 100m butterfly, another gold in the 100m freestyle, and captured his sixth gold medal in the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay on the seventh day of the eight-day World Championships programme.

“Man that last relay was a lot of fun,” Dressel said. “I wanted to lead it off even though it meant less time to get ready for it. It was such a blast,” said the 20-year-old college student coached by Gregg Troy at the University of Florida.

Leading off the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay, Dressel’s split of 47.22 was the only leadoff leg faster than 48 seconds. He and USA teammates Nathan Adrian, Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel shaved more that 3.5 seconds off the previous world record in the winning effort. Dressel’s campaign that evening started with a victory in the 50m freestyle. He qualified for that event a few weeks earlier at the 2017 USA Swimming National Championships beating 36 year-old Anthony Ervin, the Rio 2016 Olympic champion.

“In Budapest I only had to run twice after the medals ceremony. Exciting is one way to put it, tiring is another way to look at it. Tonight was busy, it was physically tiring, mentally straining. You got to take one swim at a time, enjoy the moment, then refocus quickly, very quickly.”

“My goal here is not to count medals” Dressel came back about a half hour after the 50m freestyle event to nearly break Michael Phelps’s world record in the 100 butterfly.

“It’s humbling to be that close to world records.”

The comparisons to the legendary Phelps are inevitable:

“I’m not the same person as Michael. My goal here is not to count medals. I don’t think it puts any more pressure on me. I just want to keep doing my own thing. “I don’t want to be compared to Michael. I absolutely love Michael. It was my first time being on the US Olympic Team in Rio and Michael was such a great teammate. He texted me this week to say ‘good job’.”

Dressel capped the night by leading off a world-record performance in the mixed 4x100 free relay. With one day of swimming left, Dressel had six gold medals to his credit in the Championships, putting him in position to tie Phelps’ record of seven golds earned at the 2007 Worlds in Melbourne, Australia. Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, all in world record times at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Asked about the events he might swim in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he replied:

“I haven’t even finished the 2017 worlds yet. I’m focused on the medley relay tomorrow. Plus I have a math test in two days. It’s college algebra and it’s very tough to be a college athlete. I’m not really good at math and I have tried to study but I have been busy. Then we can worry about what happens three years from now.”

“We’re seeing a star being born”

“Two more laps to go,” Dressel said with a smile hoping to close the meet with another gold medal in the 4 x 100m medley relay. Dressel was unable to divulge whether he would be swimming butterfly or freestyle.

“I can’t say, that’s a secret. It could be breaststroke, I don’t know.”

Likely it would not be breaststroke. He was winner of the 100m freestyle earlier in the 2017 Championships but his American teammate Nathan Adrian could be counted on to anchor the relay, having won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and a bronze last summer in Rio. Dressel’s time in the individual 100m butterfly was only .04 off of Phelps’s world record and almost half a second faster than the winning time of the 2016 Olympic champion Joseph Schooling of Singapore.

Schooling, also coached by Lopez and trained with Dressel when they were teenagers, is best remembered for preventing Phelps from winning that event at four consecutive Olympic Games.

Twenty-four hours after becoming the first swimmer to win three golds in one night at a major international meet, Dressel joined Phelps in another elite club: seven golds at the second-biggest meet after the Olympics. On the eighth and final day of competition, Dressel earned his seventh gold in the 4x100m medley relay. 

The American relay team included backstroker Matt Grevers and breaststroke specialist Kevin Cordes. Swimming the butterfly leg Dressel was chasing James Guy of the UK after Adam Peaty had put the Brits ahead following his dominant breaststroke leg. Dressel put the USA back on top, splitting 49.76, the only flyer to swim under 50 seconds.

“I don’t consider myself a flyer, but I guess not – I will be practicing a lot more fly. I’m close to the world records, and it’s nice to stay hungry,” said Dressel.

Nathan Adrian was the USA’s freestyle anchor with a comfortable lead, pulling away to win in 3:27.91, only .60 of a second off the world record set by his American predecessors in Rome, Italy in 2009. Britain settled for the silver, more than a second behind. While his teammates left the pool deck, Dressel lingered a bit, watching a replay of the race on the video board.

We’re seeing a star being born,” teammate and 2012 London Olympic champion Matt Grevers said about Dressel. “This meet was fantastic!”

Dressel emerged as the breakout performer of the FINA World Championships winning three individual gold medals and was part of four winning relay teams. He now holds American records in 50m and 100m freestyle and the 50m butterfly, as well as the world record in the 4x100m mixed freestyle and mixed medley relays. It was no surprise that he was named the male swimmer of the meet.

“I had mixed relays helping me out.” he smiled.

Two of his gold medals were in events that include men and women on the same relay team, and not previously on the Olympic programme.

“I’m pretty tired, but it’s been a good season, a good year, and to put together a seven-day meet, it’s a really nice feeling,” Dressel said.

“There’s a lot more that goes into this than just the eight days that people see, so I’m very happy to be done. “I have never been to a meet like this. This meet was fantastic! Especially for the Hungarian swimmers, it’s been great. I absolutely envy the amount of respect and energy that came from the stands. It was awesome. I loved the great atmosphere.”

Asked if he was prepared to be the next face of swimming, Dressel was humble and tactful:

“There are a lot of up and coming athletes in the USA and there is plenty of talent in USA Swimming to go around. I don’t think it can be put on one individual and I don’t think it can be put all on me.” “I am still getting my feet wet in international swimming, but I am excited for the future. I am just having fun doing it.”