Olympics 2021: Caeleb Dressel is ready to become the next big name in men's swimming at the Tokyo Olympics

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

CAELEB DRESSEL TOUCHED the wall in his last final -- the 50-meter freestyle -- at the U.S. Olympic swim trials and looked up to the large screen, the No. 1 flashing next to his name. He smiled, and immediately swam over to the second-place finisher, Michael Andrew and gave him a hug.

Veteran Nathan Adrian, who finished third and missed the cut to make his fourth Olympic Games, swam over to Dressel and hugged him.

Those two embraces showed an important moment in USA Swimming, a view into its past, present and future. Dressel, 24, welcomed a first-time Olympian to the team and said goodbye to a longtime member of Team USA.

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Dressel is a veteran now -- a captain, a leader. He will compete in seven events in Tokyo -- three individual sprints and four relays -- at what will be his second Games.

When he hugged Adrian after, he said he told him he was "not prepared to go to the Olympics without you." Adrian's shoes, Dressel said, were too big to fill.

"I don't very much care for the spotlight," Dressel told NBC Sports before the 2021 Olympic trials.

He might not love it or be prepared for it, but it is his regardless. With Adrian and Ryan Lochte, two mainstays, failing to make the team, the role of leader is now his.

"I want to take everything I learned from Michael [Phelps], Lochte and Nathan and bring it to this team. I want to lead by example," Dressel said at the pre-Olympics news conference in July.

Dressel has yet to win an individual medal at the Olympics; he won the two team relay golds at the 2016 Games in Rio. In these Olympics he will have seven chances at gold. Should he pull off the sweep, it'd still be one short of Phelps' record set in 2008 in Beijing. If he can medal in all his events, though, he would become just the fourth swimmer to take home that many. Phelps, Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi are the others.

Dressel's journey at these Games began Sunday as part of the 4x100 relay, which won gold. His quest to become "The Next Michael Phelps" is officially underway.

WHILE DRESSEL HAS never won an Olympic individual medal, he has been preparing for this breakout moment for quite some time.

Four years ago, at the NCAA Division I Championships, he broke the U.S. Open and American records in the 100-meter freestyle and butterfly. He then won seven gold medals at the 2017 Aquatic World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, becoming only the second swimmer after Phelps to win seven golds at a world championship. Phelps, of course, was the other. Dressel was named the male swimmer of the meet.

That moment in 2017 was when the comparisons to Phelps began. Dressel won three gold medals in one night -- in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 4x100-meter mixed freestyle relay -- to become the first person to achieve that feat in the world championships or the Olympics. Not even Phelps did that.

"The comparisons are probably inevitable," Dressel said at the time. "But I'm not the same person as Michael."

At the 2019 World Aquatic Championships, he one-upped himself, winning eight medals -- seven gold and one silver. It was the most any swimmer has won at a single championship event. In the semifinal heat of the 100-meter butterfly, he broke Phelps' 10-year-old world record, finishing at 49:50, 0.32 seconds ahead of Phelps.

"It was not easy in '17, it was not easy this year," Dressel said at the time. "I don't want it to be easy, I really don't."

Like most athletes, Dressel had to adapt in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. First he was forced to stop training, and then once he was able to resume, he trained on his own -- that, is when he could find a pool in which to train. He got married to high-school sweetheart and former swimmer Meghan Haila. To keep fit, the couple hiked the Appalachian Trail. They also bought a house in Florida and Dressel spent his time building furniture for it.

When Dressel returned to training, he picked up right where he left off. He was still swimming record times. He was calm and composed, having learned a lot about himself, his family and what's important in life, he said in his podcast, "The Ben and Caeleb Show," at the time.

DRESSEL IS NOT new to the big stage. He was the youngest male swimmer -- at age 15 -- in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, going up against Phelps and Lochte in their primes. He didn't make the final, but he got valuable experience. Then, in 2016, he finished second behind Adrian in the 100-meter freestyle, securing his spot in his first Olympics.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he helped Team USA win two golds in relay events. In the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, Dressel swam the first leg in 48.10, the second-fastest time by anybody in the first leg of the race. In the 100-meter freestyle, which has now become his marquee event, he finished sixth.

This time around, he was one of the big stars of the trials. After the 100-meter freestyle, he walked over to a fan -- a young boy who looked and dressed similarly to Dressel -- and took pictures with him.

"This was anything but an easy year. This meet is brutal," he said at the time. "It's not really that much fun unless you're racing, but I am really happy and really proud of myself. There's no shame in saying that."

Now, he arrives in Tokyo as a captain. He wants to bring Phelps' calmness, Adrian's composure and Lochte's confidence with him as he takes on this new role. He's leaned on all of them throughout his career, particularly during the pandemic, he said at the trials.

If his approach to the Olympic trials is any indication, Dressel is ready -- for the spotlight, for this moment.

He is ready to be the next big name in swimming.