By: Jayden Ho
It's the sound of the starting horn, the taste of chlorine, and the feeling of bubbles bursting against his skin that Caeleb Dressel found himself longing for. The echoes of a past self, reminders of a love for the water that never truly faded – even when the lights dimmed and the crowds fell silent.
Since his breakthrough in 2016, Dressel had been synonymous with success, becoming the face of U.S. men's swimming. However, last year, he withdrew from the world championships and receded from the limelight due to an undisclosed health issue, turning the page on a chapter filled with rigorous training, high stakes, and the weight of expectation.
The decorated 26-year-old Olympic champion recently returned to the swimming pool after stepping away for eight months. During his swimming hiatus, Dressel embarked on a transformative journey of introspection and healing. He sought solace outside the demanding sports world, fostering personal growth in the process.
Dressel made his triumphant return during the U.S. national championships held in Indianapolis, Indiana, and while he didn’t capture the top spot, his spirit and determination showed. How does it feel to fall, then rise again?
For Dressel, it was a pivotal moment, marked not by victories or defeats, but by the sheer joy of being back in the pool. He missed it all -- the water, the race, the chaos.
Dressel confessed, “And that’s how I knew I was ready to get back. Because I didn’t need to — I wanted to.”
His return to the nationals was not about setting records, but setting himself free, swapping fear for love. Although his best finish was a third place in the 50-meter butterfly event, the significance of the event transcended any physical outcome. The victory was not in winning but in being there. As he swam, a smile stretched across his face.
To Dressel, this return marked the start of his journey towards the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is a journey that he knows will be as much a mental marathon as it is a physical one. His pause from the sport was a much-needed interlude, a chance to heal and recalibrate, and as his coach Anthony Nesty put it, “Mental health is a serious issue, and everybody deals with it differently.”
In recent years, more athletes are breaking the surface of their struggles, drawing attention to the critical issue of mental health in sports. The mental toll that comes with the pressure of being in the spotlight has been openly discussed by champions like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, creating a wave of change, normalizing the conversation around mental health.
Dressel may be walking a different path now, but he still carries with him the unwavering love for the sport and the drive to keep moving forward. With each stroke, he's not just swimming towards a finish line but towards a newer, more balanced self, setting an example for the world, one lap at a time.
As he navigates through this new chapter in life, Dressel is no longer just the seven-time Olympic champion. He's the athlete who dared to step back when the world was watching, the swimmer who chose his well-being over medals, and the man who found his way back to his first love — swimming.