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Caeleb Dressel finds joy in swimming again before Olympic Trials

Caeleb Dressel and his therapist call the voice inside his head “the critic.”

It’s the voice that told Dressel on the plane ride home from the Tokyo Olympics three years ago that his five-gold-medal performance wasn’t good enough. He should have swum faster, the critic said.

It’s the voice that Dressel couldn’t quiet down before withdrawing during the 2022 World Championships in Budapest.

It’s the voice that Dressel has addressed over the last two years in weekly therapy sessions.

“Even this week, quite honestly, critic’s been showing up,” he told NBC Sports in late April. “It’s a much healthier relationship I have with him.”

Dressel swam in his first Olympic Trials in 2012 as a 15-year-old. He won two relay gold medals at the 2016 Olympics. Then in Tokyo, he became the second athlete since 2000 to win five golds at one Games after Michael Phelps.

Dressel competes in his fourth Olympic Trials inside the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium, a nine-day meet that starts Saturday, live on NBC, and Peacock.


He is entered in the three individual events he won in Tokyo — 50m freestyle (he ranks third in the country this year by best time), 100m freestyle (ranks tied for fourth) and 100m butterfly (ranks first).

The top two in each event make the team for Paris. In the 100m free, up to the top six will qualify for the 4x100m free relay pool.

After an at times difficult two years, swimming has once again become a source of joy in Dressel’s life, wife Meghan said in late April.

“Swimming used to be that a long time ago, and slowly along the way it morphed into this very controlling and not always positive thing,” she said. “Now, to see him on the pool deck smiling and laughing and cracking jokes with the commentators after races when they’re doing post-race interviews. That’s everything.”

Dressel takes home 100m butterfly win in Westmont
American Caeleb Dressel wins the men's 100m butterfly at the TYR Pro Swim Series, his first race since becoming a father.

Dressel returned to competition less than a month after the Tokyo Olympics for the International Swimming League. He withdrew two weeks into a three-week regular season and later said he felt lost during that time.

“I needed more of a break after Tokyo,” he said in April of this year.

Dressel returned to training on Dec. 15, 2021. That meant a shorter-than-normal build-up to the June 2022 World Championships.

He still entered the meet with the world’s best times that year in the 50m and 100m frees and the 100m fly, but he felt something was off before it began.

He now knows what that something was. Dressel shared what he was comfortable with in the April interview and hopes to say more about that 2022 experience in the future.

“I don’t want to say physically because I wasn’t injured or anything like that, but we’ll just call it more mentally,” he said, “because if something starts mentally, it certainly starts manifesting in your body.”

At those 2022 Worlds, he won gold medals with the U.S. men’s 4x100m free relay and in the 50m fly on the first two days of the eight-day meet. After a day off, he won his preliminary heat in the 100m free. He withdrew before that night’s semifinals.

“I couldn’t quiet down the critic,” he said. “I completely lost that battle to a point of a place I hadn’t been in a very long time, and I knew I needed to go home.”

He said the experience was similar to when he took a five-month break from swimming in his senior year of high school because he didn’t want the sport to define him.

The day after he landed back in Florida in June 2022, he went into therapy. He has seen his therapist, Nicole, at least once a week for the last two years. They’ve discussed the critic.

“It is a very important part of me,” Dressel said. “That was one of the things I told Nicole, I don’t want to lose something that gives me my edge. What if the critic is my edge?”

They worked on developing Dressel’s relationship with the critic “into a partnership instead of a dictatorship,” he said.

“It’s fantastic when I do need to push through; he (the critic) doesn’t give me a second option,” Dressel said. “No, you’re going to do this. No, you’re going to make this breath control. You’re going to get in the ice bath. You’re going to beat the guy next to you. You’re going to step up to the blocks, and you’re going to be confident. He offers me tremendous benefits and a complete edge, I think, over a lot of people.”

Dressel spent about eight months away from swim training in late 2022 and early 2023. When driving around the University of Florida, he took a long route through campus to avoid seeing the pool.

“I was embarrassed,” he said. “It was a very terrifying part of my life because I was like, I don’t know who I am right now. I don’t know what’s going on. Do I want to keep swimming?”

He camped in the woods by himself. He rode his motorcycle on back roads. He had foot surgery. He sat in silence on his porch with Meghan.

One day early on during the break, he had an epiphany while mowing on his 10 acres of land.

“I’ll never forget the spot I was going around,” he said last year. “It just popped in my head, like, oh, if I never come back to swimming, I’m going to be OK. And that’s how I knew I was somewhat ready to come back.”

He resumed swim practice in Gainesville during the winter of 2023. That first day, he pulled into the parking lot in the 5:30 a.m. darkness at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The first swimmer he saw was Katie Ledecky.

“She comes up, and she gives me a hug,” Dressel said. “I’ve never gotten a hug from Katie. I don’t know if it was a magic hug that she gave me, or if it was just having the normalcy of seeing someone else on deck and feeling like I was back at practice.”

Dressel spent the last year ramping up training. His times gradually improved from meet to meet. He is a contender to make the team for Paris in the same events he won in Tokyo.

“The goal was never, how do I get back in the water?” Meghan said. “It was, how do I uncover and sift through the muck enough to understand how this happened in the first place and be a happy human?”

Dressel said in late April that the critic had become “pretty lively” with Olympic Trials approaching.

“He’s trying to insert himself. ‘OK, well you sure you shouldn’t have done this in practice? Sure you shouldn’t have done this?’” Dressel said. “He’s still there, which I’m glad because I didn’t want Nicole to make me too good where you got rid of him. But I like him. He’s fun. He’s great. He’s fantastic. He gets work done. He’s an animal.”

Dressel has also found joy in being a father. On February 17, Meghan gave birth to their first child, son August.

“It is a pressure like no other having his eyes on me, but it’s a pressure that I will fully welcome, until the day I die, of wanting to show up for him and proving I am someone he can look up to,” Dressel said, “and it has nothing to do with times.”