Biondi, But Better

by Casey Barrett

Meet Caleb Dressel, the next great American sprinter… 

He’s always been the fastest. Every year, since he was 11-years-old, he’s been the fastest 50 freestyler in America for his age. Click through USA Swimming’s Top 16 Archive and see for yourself. At 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, there’s Caleb Dressel at the top of the 50 rankings,  the fastest boy in the land. Now he’s 16, and he’s not just the fastest among his peers, he’s accelerated into a new orbit. No 16-year-old has ever been faster.

Caleb Dressel’s times last week in Irvine, CA at the Speedo Junior National Championships make one thing very clear: In three years, this is a kid who is going to be a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in Rio. He’ll be 19 then; the same age as Anthony Ervin back when he won gold in the 50 at the 2000 Sydney Games. Dressel could do the same in Rio.

Take a look at his current best times at age 16: 50 Free – 22.39 / 100 Free – 49.28 / 200 Free – 1:48.64 / 100 Fly – 53.31. With the exception of the fly, every one of those times is a NAG record by a large margin. His 50 free knocked 4-tenths off the old mark. In the 100 free, he demolished Joe Hudepohl’s old record by almost a full second. (That record stood for 23 years; Hudepohl you might recall was a teenage Olympian himself, a member of the men’s 4×100 free relay back in ’92, in Barcelona…) In the 200 Free, he slashed about a second off of Ian Crocker’s mark, set back in 1998.

With that arsenal of events, does he remind you of anyone? There’s only one, really, who should come to mind. His name is Matt Biondi. He’s arguably the best freestyler in American history. He was inarguably the world’s best swimmer of his generation. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, those were his events: the three freestyles and the 100 fly, plus all the relays. In Seoul, Biondi owned the 50 and the 100 and all three relays for five gold. In the 100 fly and 200 free, well, he should have won those too. In the fly, he famously coasted into the finish and allowed Surinam’s (and Florida’s) Anthony Nesty to charge past him in the final stroke, to take gold by one 1/100th. In the 200 free, he dominated for 180 meters, until his considerable draft allowed a smart racing Aussie named Duncan Armstrong to sweep by him for gold. Biondi grabbed the bronze in that one, rounding out an Olympic campaign that has been surpassed by only two men – Spitz and Phelps.

For most of his young swimming life, Dressel has been making his mark mostly as a pure sprinter. But this year, he evolved with the range of a new Biondi in the making. His 1:48.6 in the 200 free might have surprised him more than anyone. It also surely had every top college coach salivating. As if they weren’t already. When Dressel arrives on some lucky campus in the fall of 2014, he will bring the potential for rare dominance at the NCAAs. Only two men have managed to sweep the 50, 100, and 200 free at NCs. Biondi is one; the other is Michigan and Brazilian great Gustavo Borges.

Gus, like Caleb, came from Bolles, down in Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I graduated high school, so the bias is extreme. But so is the evidence. It’s the best high school swimming program on planet earth, and that’s never been more evident than this year, when Dressel was just one of a collection of superstars, including Ryan Murphy, Joseph Schooling, and Dressel’s buddy and close rival, Santo Condorelli.

In Irvine at Juniors, Dressel battled the 18-year-old Condorelli head to head in the 50 and the 100. Dressel got him in the 100, but in the 50 final, he added a few tenths onto his record-breaking prelims time, and Condorelli took the Junior title.

That misstep in finals showed that Dressel still has some learning to do. In both the 50 and the 100, he was faster in prelims. In the 100, it appears he swam a bit recklessly over the first half. (If you flip in 23.1, you really should be under 49…) And in the 200, he reversed that prelim-peak trend. He swam too leisurely in his 200 heat and wound up in the B-final — where he smoked the field and broke the meet record, with a time that would have easily won the big final.

But so much for that. Juniors is the time and the place to learn from these mistakes. And he will. Or he better. Because now the pressure’s on. Dressel is not just an age group record-setting phenom anymore. He’s raced his way into Olympic conversation.

Hell, a blogger is already making wild comparisons to Matt Biondi.