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A Champion Swimmer Returns Slowly, But Determinedly, to Competition

By: Kyle Xu

Splash! The onlookers scramble over each other to watch Caeleb Dressel race. He speeds down the pool, arms spinning and legs thrashing. For several years, Caeleb Dressel, 7-time Olympic Champion swimmer reigned as the world’s most renowned sprinter. But a year ago, he suddenly withdrew from competition due to health issues.

After eight months, Caeleb Dressel is now back in the pool. Some of the things he missed were simple, like the feel of the water flowing with his body, or the grip of his toes on the starting block. He also missed the smell of chlorine – and even the shriveled skin that comes as a price for hours of swim practice.

Dressel has returned to compete at the US national championships. The 50 and 100-meter-freestyle events, the events at which he won at the Tokyo Olympics, proved to be harmed by the long break from the pool. The swimmer swam poorly, not qualifying for the championship finals. However, he swam third in the 50-meter butterfly, but still not good enough to qualify for the World Championships.

“I always had a smile on my face actually racing,” he said. “There is a difference between racing scared because you don’t want to embarrass yourself and then actually enjoying racing. And I haven’t had that enjoyment in quite some time, so it was nice having it back.”

Caeleb Dressel, the fast swimmer that had emerged after Michael Phelps’s retirement, was suddenly off the US’s team for the first time since 2016. But these results were expected, as months ago Dressel was faced with the fear of never returning to the pool.

His goal is to regain his old brilliance in time to make the 2024 Paris Olympics. Though this meet proved that Dressel had a long way physically before the Olympics, he stated that his mental strength will be more important.

“Mental health is a serious issue, and everybody deals with it differently,” said Anthony Nesty, Dressel’s coach in the Gator Swim Club. “Sometimes it takes time to heal from that.”

The youngest male swimmer for worlds since Phelps, Thomas Heilman, said he watched videos of Phelp’s and Dressel. He swam next to Dressel for the first time in the 100-meter-fly. Dressel congratulated Heilman as they walked off the deck together.

Anthony Nesty, Dressel’s coach, says that Dressel is “mentally, he’s right where he needs to be.” Dressel states that he has also gained some peace. In the 100-meter freestyle, Dressel added two seconds from his time at the 2022 world championships before his hiatus.

Not a winner, but still a swimmer in the water.

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