Olympics 2021: Swimmer Caeleb Dressel's time is now in post-Michael Phelps era

Caeleb Dressel sett an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle on Thursday. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Caeleb Dressel has been compared to Michael Phelps long before he reached Tokyo. But with each Olympic medal, the association strengthens.

Dressel was nearly speechless after touching the wall, looking up to see No. 1 appear across his name on the big screen, the first time he did so for an individual Olympic race.

The 24-year-old American set an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle (47.02), beating out 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers by only six-hundredths of a second.

Tears poured down Dressel's eyes when his family in Florida appeared on screen during his poolside interview Thursday morning. "We're so proud of you," his family repeated over and over. Dressel, with his hand on his mouth, took it in, still quietly crying.

Phelps spoiled Americans with his immaculate performance each time he got in the pool. Seventeen years after he won six Olympic gold medals (four individual, two team) during the Athens Games in 2004, he made sure America reigned atop the podium.

Phelps isn't competing anymore, but his absence is still intensely felt. Fans and experts commented how they still couldn't believe Phelps was in the booth instead of racing in the pool.

The only person who has come close to a follow-up act to Phelps is Dressel. In an otherwise tepid performance by the Americans in the pool (Katie Ledecky missed gold in the 400-meter freestyle and finished fifth in the 200-meter freestyle; Ryan Murphy failed to medal in the 100-meter backstroke; and the United States men failed to make the podium in the 800-meter relay), Dressel has been the standout.

So far, he is 2-for-2 in walking away with the gold when he makes a final. First, he led off Team USA's 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

In the one final Dressel was left out of -- Tuesday's 4x200-meter freestyle relay -- the U.S. failed to medal, the first time in Olympic history the U.S. didn't medal in any relay.

Headlines read, "U.S. men fail to medal without Dressel." Before the race, Phelps expressed shock in an NBC interview that Dressel was not included in the team.

"In my opinion," Phelps said, "he's probably the best 200 freestyler in the world. Leaving him off that relay makes it a lot harder to win."

If the 2016 Olympics was Dressel's introduction to the world, Tokyo will be his breakthrough. On Friday, he will compete in the 100-meter butterfly, followed by another one of his marquee events -- the 50-meter freestyle sprint. He is favored to win gold in both events.

If he does, Dressel will end up having a perfect Olympics -- gold in every event he races in. Similar to Phelps in Athens, during his first Olympics.

It could be the start of a new era -- one of chasing Phelps -- and maybe even being on par with the greatest swimmer of all time.