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Caeleb Dressel Back in the Pool After Mental Health Break

By: Teresa Gong

Caeleb Dressel, a seven-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, took an eight-month break from the sport due to an undisclosed health issue. During his time away from swimming, Dressel realized how much he missed various aspects of the sport, including simple things like blowing bubbles in the water and the feeling of his toes on the starting blocks. He also missed the chlorine and the dry skin that comes from spending hours in the pool.

“I missed every part of it,” Dressel, 26, said. “And that’s how I knew I was ready to get back. Because I didn’t need to — I wanted to.”

Dressel recently made his return to elite swimming at the U.S. national championships. However, his performance was not up to his usual standards, as his preliminary swims in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events were too slow to qualify for the final. His best finish was third place in the 50-meter butterfly, which was not fast enough to secure a spot in the upcoming world championships.

Despite his disappointment in his performance, Dressel has shown joy at being back in the water and has been able to enjoy racing again. He mentioned to the New York Times that he hadn't experienced that enjoyment in quite some time and that it was a significant step for him. Dressel's ultimate goal is to regain his form in time to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, and he believes that the mental aspect of the sport will be crucial to his comeback.

“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.”

Dressel did not disclose the specific reason for his withdrawal from the 2022 world championships in Budapest but mentioned that his body “kept score.”

His coach, Anthony Nesty, attributed Dressel's need for a break to the added pressure of being the face of U.S. men's swimming. Dressel's therapist played a role in determining his readiness to return to swimming.

The U.S. world championship team that formed without Dressel includes familiar faces like Katie Ledecky, who swam exceptionally well, and new talents. Thomas Heilman, a 16-year-old swimmer from Virginia, became the youngest male swimmer to qualify for a U.S. worlds team since Michael Phelps. Heilman, who draws inspiration from watching Phelps and Dressel's races on YouTube, had the opportunity to swim alongside Dressel in the 100-meter butterfly final. Dressel, who finished behind Heilman, congratulated him as they left the deck together.

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