Caeleb Dressel set a world record and wasn’t at his best

TOKYO — Caeleb Dressel was shaking. Not violently, but inside. He was in the ready room here at the Olympics before his 100-meter butterfly final, an event in which he held the world record, and yet he was “out of sorts.”

“The sport was a lot more fun when no one knew my name, to be honest,” Dressel said, and his brain started throwing things at him. Thoughts. Nerves. Fatigue. “It was a little bit annoying,” he later said. He tried to tell it to “shut up.”

And then, a little after 10:30 a.m. here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, he dove in, wowed a meager crowd, powered through the water, and broke his own world record.

Dressel didn’t feel great, mentally or physically. “I don’t want you guys to, like, make me seem like a giant baby,” he said. But, “Yeah, I get tired, I get nervous.” He swam twice on Thursday, and twice again on Friday, and before his first of three swims on Saturday, no, he wasn’t at his best.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31:   Caeleb Dressel of Team United States competes in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Caeleb Dressel competes in the Men’s 100m Butterfly Final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Fred Lee/Getty Images)

But he was still Caeleb Dressel. Still determined to execute a race plan. Still with untouchable speed and strength. He started like only he can. He rose and surged, out of and into the water, his butterfly putting him ahead of Hungary’s Kristof Milak, and ahead of world-record pace.

His turn at the 50? Not great.

His finish? Not his best.

He touched in 49.45 seconds anyway, topping his previous mark of 49.50, and narrowly holding off Milak.

“And it hurt,” Dressel said. “And it hurt really bad.”

And that, perhaps, is the most extraordinary aspect of Dressel’s swim, one of the best of these Games, but still flawed.

“Body wasn’t as good as it could have been,” he told reporters. “That’s just the body I was given on this day. Felt better yesterday.”

So you think you could’ve gone even faster?

“Every swim, you can always go faster,” he said. “Today, I could even have gone faster. Last year, I could’ve gone faster. Next year, I am gonna be saying the same thing.

“But yeah, I probably could’ve found a couple hundreths, a couple tenths.”

And it was as if the swimming world shuttered as he spoke. He leaned on a barrier in the bowels of the arena, now a five-time Olympic gold medalist, justifiably confident that he can get better. He’s only 24. He knows he’s considered “one of the old ones in the sport,” but he feels young.

He is not slowing down, but rather accelerating, perhaps toward two more medals on the final day of Olympic competition here, perhaps toward a sweep of his three individual events. His dominance has become assumed, to the point that he felt the need to remind reporters Saturday that, you know, “This sport’s really not that easy.” That a double-double-triple, three consecutive multi-swim days, will wear you down.

“My body didn’t feel as good as yesterday,” he reiterated.

But then, another reminder: “Does that mean I can’t swim fast? No. Absolutely not.”

And does fast, faster than any man ever, mean he can’t get even faster?

“Every swim, you can always go faster,” Dressel said. “If I ever have a swim where I say, ‘that’s it,’ I’ll retire.”

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