There will never be another Michael Phelps, but if there's such a thing as the next-best thing, Caeleb Dressel is absolutely it.
The 24-year-old from Florida positively wowed in Tokyo, and on Sunday morning in Japan, Dressel completed a phenomenal and historic week's worth of swimming. The bottom line on his final haul: five gold medals, three of them individual. That achievement is the stuff of sporting legend. Dressel became one of three American male swimmers to win at least three individual golds at a single Olympics.
The other two: Mark Spitz and Phelps.
Dressel also became the first swimmer in history to win gold in the 50-meter freestyle, the 100 free and the 100-meter butterfly at the same Olympics.
God-tier performance from Dressel in the pool this week.
His five-gold haul also made him the fifth American in history to win that many in a single Olympics in the past 50 years. Spitz, Phelps, Eric Heiden and Matt Biondi are the other four. It's official: When we discuss all-time Olympic greats, Dressel's name has to be included in that conversation, just the way Katie Ledecky's is.
Let's refresh on Dressel's dominion in the water, because it's all too easy for a lot of these races to blend together after a barrage of events each night for a week straight. The first of Dressel's five gold medals came on the first Sunday of Olympic competition, when he swam the fastest opening leg in the men's 4x100 free relay, marking the second consecutive Olympics he won gold in that event. (Dressel now has seven Olympic medals, all of them gold.)
Thursday brought the men's 100-meter freestyle final. Dressel dramatically held off Australia's Kyle Chalmers by .06 of a second to set an Olympic record (47.02) and earn the first individual Olympic gold of his career. Saturday's 100-meter butterfly was even better. Dressel set the world record (49.45) and needed to do so in order to hold off Hungary's Kristóf Milák, whose back-half split was the fastest in history. Elite athletes producing high drama on the biggest stage in the world.
How can you not love the Olympics?
With that 100 fly win, Dressel became the first male swimmer to set a world record in an individual event at these Games. His three golds set the stage for Sunday's finale, and Dressel's unforgettable week culminated in storybook form.
First, it would be the splash-and-dash: the 50-meter freestyle. Dressel was favored, and when he's favored, he almost always delivers. He turned in a 21.07 gold medal-winning swim. Ho-hum, just an Olympic record. Here's what's nuts, though: Dressel won that race by a greater margin than anyone before in the 50 free in Olympic history. The man may need to get Poseidon tattooed on his other arm.
Then, as always, the final swim race of the Olympics: the men's 4x100 medley relay. This event is the pride of American swimming and the crowned jewel of team swimming on the world stage. Since it began in the Olympics back in 1960, the United States has won every 4x100 men's medley relay it's competed in. (The Australians won in Moscow in 1980, when the U.S. boycotted those Games.)
After barely qualifying for Sunday's finale, the United States was reduced to the unusual position of Lane 1, as opposed to the middle four lanes, where the champion normally surfaces from. Dressel, barely an hour removed from his gold-winning swim in the 50 free, swam the third leg (butterfly).
The race produced what will immediately be regarded as one of the best collective swims in world history.
The U.S. medley relay team of Ryan Murphy (backstroke), Michael Andrew (breaststroke), Dressel (butterfly) and Zach Apple (freestyle) set a world record with a time of 3:26.78. The U.S. kept its absurd stranglehold on this event by winning it for the 15th time in 15 tries.
"It's funny, we talked about the world record yesterday," Dressel said on NBC afterward. "It's not something we wanted to be scared of, we wanted it thrown in our face and we knew we had a shot at it. Even in Lane 1, it didn't matter, we had a lane, we had a goal."
Never scared. (And, seemingly never tired?) That's Caeleb Dressel. We've touched on all his wins, but let's not forget his insane schedule, which included quick turnarounds on multiple nights as he competed in events that were scrunched together and tested his physical limits. He's built for it. This was, on balance, one of the most impressive collective performances by any athlete we'll see in any sport this year.
His mere presence in the wonderful new event, the 4x100 mixed medley relay, made for compelling theater. (Dressel was the only male swimmer who took anchor; he was playing catchup against seven female swimmers.) The United States didn't medal in that race, but these Games were another sterling showing in the pool for the U.S. Led by Dressel and the incomparable Ledecky, Team USA's men and women combined to win 30 medals in the pool -- the most of any nation -- and also captured the most golds (11), silvers (10) and bronzes (nine). There were other stars, like Bobby Finke, who came from behind in both the 800 free earlier in the week and the 1,500 free on Sunday. Phenomenally, he won the gold in both. (Finke might be the greatest closer since Mariano Rivera.)
Given the recency of Phelps' dominance and the timing of Dressel being the next great male American swimmer, comparisons are understandably inevitable. But let's be sure to put Dressel on his own platform. Whereas 2016 was his introduction, 2021 was Dressel's time to carve something memorable. He exceeded expectations, which amounts to something almost superhuman when you consider how much pressure and attention is put upon the biggest athletes at the Olympics.
Phelps redefined the standards for swimming, and if we're honest with ourselves, we must admit Dressel is carrying that torch beyond what should be asked of him -- but so impressively nonetheless.
In a week's time, he went from great American swimmer to all-time Olympian. He doesn't seem done, either. If anything, should Dressel seek even more in Paris three years from now, there probably won't be anyone who can stop him.