It’s hard to believe that swimming phenom Caeleb Dressel nearly quit the sport five years ago.
“I wasn’t enjoying it, and I liked doing other things,” said Dressel, a Clay High (Green Cove Springs, Fla.) senior, who competes for the Bolles Sharks swim club in Jacksonville. “But, something was keeping me in it, and I couldn’t walk away.”
That something turned out to be chasing goals.
In August, Dressel turned in a record-shattering win in the 100-meter freestyle at the FINA World Junior Championships in Dubai. His time of 48.97 seconds replaced the U.S. national 17-18 age group record of 49.05 seconds, set by Michael Phelps in 2004.
Dressel also collected five more medals, including two silvers (400 free relay and mixed 400 free relay) and three bronzes (mixed 400 medley relay, 800 free relay and 50 free).
Last month at the Florida Swimming Pool Association Invitational in Sarasota, Dressel reset the national high school record in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 19.36 seconds.
Catch his face after such successful performances though and don’t be surprised to find Dressel with a self-described mad expression.
“After I look at the scoreboard, I’m already setting a new goal,” he said. “I’m thinking about how much faster the time could have been.”
As part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ Ultimate Athlete spotlight – an ongoing, interactive discussion about what sport supersedes the rest, a series featuring athlete profiles, smack talk, training videos and more – Dressel enters the stream.
Before heading off to a three-hour swim practice, Dressel addressed his drive,
which he partly credits to once fearing losing to his older sister.
You’ve said anyone can train, but what separates good from great swimmers is their mental approach. Why do you consider this the difference maker?
Dressel: Putting in the training helps, but if you want it, you have to go out and do it. There are so many athletes that can swim fast, but the separation is between those who want it more and know they can do it.
Describe your mental approach to practicing versus racing.
Dressel: In a race I only have one shot. Practice is definitely different. When I feel beat up in the moment, I think of the bigger picture and what I’m working toward and how it will pay off in the end.
What do you turn to if you need a mental push?
Dressel: I write down stuff — good quotes, motivational stuff that maybe only makes sense to me.
What about in terms of an athlete role model? Who inspires you?
Dressel: Bo Jackson. He was a pure athlete, and he didn’t limit himself. I love that about him. I also look up to Muhammad Ali. I watch videos of him on YouTube all the time. He knew he wasn’t going to lose, and he was very verbal about it. When he put it out there, everyone heard. He put pressure on himself, but he knew he was going to go out and do it (win).
You’ve professed that you don’t intend to limit yourself. Tell us about resetting Michael Phelps’ 100 freestyle U.S. national 17-18 age group record at the World Junior Championships in Dubai.
Dressel: It’s cool to break one of his records, but literally right after I finished I was like, ‘Now what do I do from here to get faster?’ The hype, and that I got the gold medal is cool, and I appreciate it, but I’m not going to be satisfied with that. The moment I am is the time I’m done with swimming.
Your father was a collegiate swimmer at Delaware and now your older sisterKaitlyn is representing Florida State. How has either influenced your drive?
Dressel: My parents haven’t pushed anything on me. Kaitlyn was definitely my motivator when I was younger. She whooped on me mentally because she worked harder, and I saw how it paid off. When I watched her be a workhorse during practice, I [realized] I didn’t want my sister beating me. She made me realize that swimming was the right sport for me.
Throughout your development, what have you learned from competing in the sport?
Dressel: It’s a journey. The sport keeps you humble because however big you think you are, it throws stuff at you that you’re going to have to rise up against, and it’s going to challenge you.
When I got back from Dubai, I realized that there’s so much more than just yourself in the sport. You’re representing your team, and you always have to take pride in that.