TOKYO — If Caeleb Dressel doesn’t win another medal the rest of this week — oh, but he will — it does not matter.
On Thursday, he won the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
It’s not just that he won the men’s 100 freestyle, always the heavyweight men’s title swim fight of the Olympics, in this instance amplified by his long-running rivalry with Australia’s Kyle Chalmers. It’s that moments after the race, Dressel was able, via high-speed internet and the sort of meet-up app that has become a mainstay in the pandemic, to connect with his wife and parents and extended family and friends, and the whole thing was broadcast live on television.
Dressel cried, tears of joy. Framed by happy tumult in the background, his wife, Meghan, cried. They are newlyweds, married this past February. She said, I love you so much. She said, it was so powerful. He said, I love you, too. He said, thank you guys. His mom, Christine, standing next to his dad, Michael, shouted out, Caeleb, I love you! Meghan blew him a kiss.
In 2008 in Beijing, Michael Phelps went into the stands to visit with his family, in particular his mom, Debbie, upon winning. The moment produced an iconic photograph of Phelps and family surrounded by an army of photographers. But this — this brought an entirely new level of meaning to and with America of what it’s like to win, possible only because of the pandemic, because there are no fans, no friends, no family here in Tokyo.
It’s a revelation.
We not only could see. We could hear. We shared, all of us, a nation as family, in the moment.
In five minutes — from the time he rocketed off the blocks in Lane Five until he wiped his eyes and gave his earpiece back to Michele Tafoya, a family photo of him in floaties on the screen — Caeleb Dressel won the race. And these Olympics.
To know swimming is to know how the race itself was all but over from the get-go.
Dressel has an explosive start. It’s why he led off the gold medal-winning 4x100 free relay earlier in the week. His reaction time Thursday was six-tenths of a second. Only South Korea’s Hwang Sunwoo, 18, a rising star but not yet in Dressel’s class, got off faster — 58-hundredths. Hwang would finish fifth.
Chalmers is the Rio 2016 gold medalist in this event. His reaction time was .66. To be honest, that Chalmers was even in the race, much less that he fought an amazingly good fight, is testament to his warrior’s heart. He has had shoulder problems galore, including, he said, 12 cortisone shots in his left shoulder.
“There’s nothing I could have done more today,” he said. “I’m really content and happy.”
At 50 meters, Dressel turned in 22.39 seconds. Kliment Kolesnikov of the Russian Olympic Committee, silver medalist here in the 100 backstroke, was just behind, in 22.49. Chalmers was third, in 22.71.
“This race was one of the most memorable for me,” Kolesnikov would say later, “and I will always think of it in the future.
Chalmers came on strong in the back half, as expected, in 24.37. It was not enough. Dressel’s strategy was to build a big lead over 50 and hang.
Dressel went 24.63 over the final lap. He touched in 47.02, a new Olympic record.
Chalmers hit in 47.08. Six-hundredths back.
The difference in the race? Those six-tenths of a second at the start.
Kolesnikov went 24.95, 47.44 — 42-hundredths behind.
At the final wall, Dressel took it all in. He climbed on the lane line. He raised both hands and made a No. 1 motion with both.
Dressel is a big believer in perspective. He understands keenly it’s the hard work no one sees — the “pennies in the bank,” as he says — that lead to the bright lights. That hard work leads to an appreciation for moments to be savored.
“I don’t want to get immune to the feeling that racing offers me,” he said, adding, “People would kill to be in the situation I’m in. Lane Five. The Olympic final. I don’t want to take that for granted.”
And connecting with the people who are the most important in your life at the most important moments.
“That,” Caeleb Dressel said after winning it all, referring to his wife, his family, his friends back home displayed on the TV monitor in front of him on the pool deck just moments after he did what he set out to do, “was the first time I got to talk to them.
“That,” he said, “was really special.”