The legendary American grabbed global headlines in 2008 when he racked up an incredible eight gold medals – breaking compatriot Mark Spitz’s record in 1972 of seven first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games.
Phelps’ heroics confirmed him as the God of the swimming pool, setting a ridiculously high bar that future generations would struggle to ever eclipse. The magnitude of his feat is impossible to exaggerate.
Caeleb Dressel is the man to beat in the pool at the delayed Tokyo Olympics this summer
Dressel, 24 years of age, has earned comparisons to American legend Michael Phelps
Phelps would eventually go onto retire after the 2016 Games in Rio – and he did so as the most decorated Olympian of all time with a haul of 28 medals.
Across five Olympics, he notched up 23 golds (the most ever won!), three silver and two bronze medals. His name resonates throughout the world and every Olympian aspires to reach his level. But that’s practically impossible, right?
Well if the latest murmurs are to be true, then fellow American swimmer Caeleb Dressel could have something to say about that.
Dressel, who was born in Florida just days after the Atlanta 1996 Games Closing Ceremony, is the new man in town and is ready to take the Olympics by storm for America.
His path to the top wasn’t too straightforward though, and it was only at the age of 12 that Dressel decided to focus solely on swimming having initially played American Football.
But it’s certainly not a decision he looks back on with regret, breaking records galore in the pool ever since. And his dominant form is making a splash ahead of the delayed Tokyo Games.
An emotional Dressel after winning gold in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay at Rio 2016
Dressel’s talent was clear to see from a very young age as he smashed records left, right and centre – first off at the the 2011 Junior National Championships in Palo Alto, breaking the boys’ 13-14 National Age Group Record in the 50m freestyle.
And just a year after breaking the NAG record, Dressel delivered the goods again at the 2012 USA Swimming Winter Nationals. In the 200-yard freestyle relay, he became the first swimmer under the age of 16 to break 20 seconds.
At the same meeting, Dressel also broke the 100-yard freestyle 15-16 NAG record which had been set back in 1990. His ability was clear for all to see from the off.
Records continued to tumble but it was in 2016 when he really grabbed the spotlight on the biggest stage.
He got his first taste of Olympic action at Rio 2016 and won his first gold as part of the United States men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team alongside Ryan Held, Nathan Adrian and the icon that is Phelps. In the final, he swam the lead-off leg in 48.10, which was the second fastest opening leg in the field.
A second gold followed not long after for Dressel, who was 19 at the time, in the 4x100m medley relay having swum in the heats but not the main events.
And five years on, the American swimmer has gone onto win 13 FINA World Aquatics Championship titles along with two silver medals too in Budapest in 2017 and Gwangju in 2019.
In Budapest Dressel amassed seven gold medals and a record eight medals in Gwangju, including six golds, at just 22 years of age.
But his list of achievements from the Gwangju Championships certainly didn’t stop there.
Dressel, married to Meghan Haila (pictured), has broken records galore in recent years
In just one night in South Korea, Dressel replicated his feat of three titles in a single evening from Hungary in 2017. He also recorded the third fastest time in the 100m freestyle (49.96 seconds) while he broke Phelps’ 100m butterfly record which had lasted for 10 years – putting on a show in just 49.50 seconds.
But despite his incredible success in the pool, the World Championships tend to include events that do not make it onto the Olympic schedule. If they did, Team GB’s Adam Peaty would be an almost certainty to become a double gold Olympic champion.
At the last Worlds he racked up two medals in the 100m mixed freestyle relay and the 50m butterfly – events that won’t be at held in Tokyo.
But unlike his British rival, Dressel is more of an all-rounder and tends to clean up at the sprint freestyle, butterfly and medley events.
Despite his incredible achievements mentioned above in 2019, Dressel definitely did not get carried away, which may just sum up why he has been in a class of his own.
Dressel told FINA Magazine at the end of 2019: ‘A lot of people think I had a great year. I don’t think it was great. I think it was good. I was happy with world championships, but not satisfied.’
But while Dressel has kept himself grounded, others have been his biggest cheerleaders and it’s easy to see why.
During his youth in America, Dressel played football, American football, ran, and swam
Dressel also broke two world records as he competed in the International Swimming League final in Budapest last year.
He smashed the previous 100m butterfly world record of 48.08 seconds to 47.78, which had been held by Chad Le Clos, in turn becoming the first man ever to complete the 100m butterfly in under 48 seconds.
Then, around 40 minutes later, he returned to cut his own 50m freestyle world record time by 0.08 from 20.24 seconds to 20.16
And it’s Dressel’s brilliant form from down the years that has seem him earn plenty of comparisons to his American compatriot and swimming legend Phelps from fans, commentators and former champions alike.
And after his domination at the World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, five-time Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe stopped just short of saying Dressel can break Phelps’ record of eight golds in Tokyo, but did claim he is the ‘best male athlete’ since the American great.
It was only until the age of 12 that the American decided to fully concentrate on swimming
When asked during an Instagram Live interview with Olympic.org last year whether he thinks Dressel could really do what many view as the impossible, Thorpe responded: ‘I’ve been criticised before because I said I didn’t think Michael Phelps would win eight gold medals.
‘It wasn’t that I didn’t think that he could. It was that I just didn’t think it would happen. So I’m not going to say with Caeleb Dressel that I don’t think he can. I just I do not think he will.
‘And I’m happy to say that for me, Caeleb Dressel is the most dominant male swimmer that I’ve seen since Michael Phelps. And I have the utmost respect for him. I think he is such an exceptional athlete and so respectful to his rivals.
‘But when I look at him accomplishing nine compared to eight, I don’t want eight to ever be a disappointment. The same as for Michael, if it was seven and not eight. That should not be a disappointment because of how much goes into that.
‘Understanding what happens in swimming, I want the athletes to be acknowledged in the way that’s worthy. And I don’t think it’s worthwhile actually comparing different generations to others. I actually don’t think that helps in sport because the context is wrong.
Dressel has kept himself very grounded despite the huge success he has enjoyed in the pool
‘If Caeleb was to actually achieve that at the next Olympics Games it would be mind blowing to me. If he does then hats off to him. The Australian athletes I’m always going for, but he is literally is the best male athlete since Michael Phelps. And that’s that’s no lie.’
So when the delayed Olympics eventually come around at the end of July, Dressel will almost likely be the talk of the town.
He may not be able to escape any comparisons to Phelps heading into the Olympics but Dressel certainly won’t let that get to him as he goes in search of glory in Tokyo.