Caeleb Dressel took Tokyo 2020 by storm, bringing home five gold medals from the pandemic-delayed Summer Games. However, his journey to gold was not always sunshine and rainbows.
The 25-year-old and his inner circle opened up about the dark times throughout the rise of his career on In Depth With Graham Bensinger. With the absence of Michael Phelps, the focus was largely on Dressel, placing sky-high expectations for him to replace one of the greatest swimmers of all time.
“You go to Trials and there’s a building that is—the whole wall is Caeleb. And it’s like, ‘Oh, no pressure here, Caeleb,’” his mother Christina said. “I think it wouldn’t be as dominant as it was if Phelps was still kind of on the platform. But because there’s no Phelps, it literally gets dumped on him.”
His father, Michael, told Bensinger, “Even there he told me, ‘You know, dad, I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t poop for like three or four days.’ I mean it’s just [a] crazy amount of pressure. … These are kids.”
Dressel read aloud his swimming logbook that included honest reflections of his training sessions leading up to the 2021 Olympic Trials.
“Yeah, F— me, f—ing terrible. My body is done,’” Dressel read. “Oh jeez. … I know I’m laughing a little bit, but when you’re writing this, this isn’t as a joke. This is good information.
“F— me. F— my body. F— swimming. Jeez. Yeah, there’s a totally different side of the sport that a lot of people don’t see. There’s this whole four-year process, and you’re getting down to the crunch, crunch, crunch time and it’s this. It’s this type of stuff, of ‘I want it to be perfect,’ and you just feel like trash. … Those are real words I was feeling in that moment. I try to be as honest with myself as I can in these books, ’cause these aren’t for—well until now—these aren’t really for anybody else’s eyes.”
However, his mental health struggles date back to when he stepped into the national spotlight as a senior in high school and a top recruit for the University of Florida. Dressel pinpointed one meet as the first time he experienced panic attacks and depression.
He had become the youngest to go under 19 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle, but in the finals of his last state meet, he failed to record another best time. Dressel recalls how the crowd let out a collective disappointed sigh.
“That was the first taste of like that expectation of, ‘Oh, you’ve done it once. He’s going to do it again.’ I just felt like an entertainment at that point,” he said.
Being the top recruit came with added pressure and an intense national spotlight. Dressel began to feel the pressure, resulting in panic attacks. His mother recalled how she thought her son was having a heart attack because he was “white as a ghost, slurring his speech and shaking.” Doctors pinpointed that it was anxiety Dressel was feeling, “the pressure that he put on himself and society put on him.”
“He was just constantly going,” his mother said. Dressel’s former coach, Gregg Troy, detailed how the rising star went meet-to-meet asking what record he could break now. Dressel decided he needed a break, inevitably taking several months off, but he said at the time that he did not know if he would return to the sport.
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“I didn’t want to do anything—wasn’t going to school, wasn’t swimming. [I] was pretty much just laying in bed for all hours of the day for a couple months,” Dressel said.
His mother expanded on that time, saying he didn’t want to eat.
“I was like, ‘Caeleb you have to get out of this dark room…’ He was just in a deep depression,” she said. “He just didn’t want to be around people … I think it was just a reminder of, ‘Great, I let this person down ’cause I didn’t get a world record.’”
Bensinger later asked Christina if it had gotten to the point where she was worried about her son’s life.
“I wasn’t sure,” she said. “Did I think deep down Caeleb would commit suicide? No. But, I’ve had dear friends of mine that were in the swimming, that their kids have, and it was because of pressure and I knew how much pressure Caeleb put on himself. So deep down I thought, ’No, no, it can’t be him.’ But I didn’t brush it off to where I was a blind mom.”
During this time, Florida held his spot for him, giving Dressel the space he needed.
However, Dressel would soon face more pressure come time for Tokyo, a time when his best friend Ben Kennedy said it hit harder than the depressive episode in high school.
“Yeah, it’s brutal. I think the added attention, the monumental moment in our sport is the Olympic Games, an event that happens once every four years,” Dressel said to Bensinger. “My longest race is lasting 49 seconds, my shortest is lasting 21 seconds.”
He went on to not only qualify for the Summer Games but walked away highly decorated, snagging gold in the 4×100-meter medley relay, 4×100-meter freestyle relay, 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle. He’s only the third American male swimmer to win three individual golds during a single Summer Games and was later named one of Sports Illustrated‘s Athlete of the Year.
Although Dressel told Bensinger that he “didn’t hit any of my goal times in Tokyo.”
“And that’s not fair to myself. That’s not fair at all. Like I just won five gold medals on the biggest world stage in sports, and I’m thinking about how I wish I would’ve gone faster in certain events.”
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