Since Rio 2016, Caeleb Dressel has taken control of men’s swimming. Just 19 at the time, he was in the shadow of Michael Phelps, who was appearing at his final Olympic Games.
But once the American swimming great hung up his goggles, Dressel stepped up. He took two gold medals in Brazil, both in relay events, and then set out to dominate the sport.
He claimed seven golds a year later at the World Championships in Budapest, and then bettered that with eight medals in total (six gold, two silver) at the 2019 event in Gwangju.
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Obvious question then: if he could do that in South Korea, can Dressel match Phelps’ Olympic record of winning eight gold medals at a single Games, achieved at Beijing 2008?

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Not so fast. The World Championships tend to include events that do not make it onto the Olympic schedule. If it did, Team GB’s Adam Peaty would be a virtual certainty to be a double gold medallist, as he dominates the 50m breaststroke - which will not be in the Tokyo programme.
Unlike Peaty, Dressel is much more of an all-rounder. Breaststroke is not his forte, but he tends to clean up in the sprint freestyle, butterfly and medley events. At the last Worlds, he won medals in two events which will not be included at Tokyo 2020 - the 100m mixed freestyle relay and the 50m butterfly.
If we play this fantasy swimming game and theorise that Dressel will sweep the disciplines he can compete in, that leaves him on six golds. But now, it gets intriguing.
Using Peaty as an example again, plenty of British swimming fans would like to see him move up to the 200m breaststroke, which has yielded some positive results in the past. Dressel is going to attempt the distance in the freestyle at next month’s US trials.
Should he qualify in that event, it potentially boosts his medal opportunities to eight - as he would then be considered for the 4x200m freestyle relay, which he has already admitted he is interested in competing in.

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So can Dressel actually win eight gold medals?

Last month, Dressel won the 200m at the 2021 TYR Pro Swim Series at Mission Viejo in 1:47.57. That is way down on the fastest time in the discipline this year, set by Britain’s Duncan Scott at the London Olympic trials, when he posted 1:40.25.
It seems, then, that it will take quite some effort for Dressel to match Phelps’ eight gold medals - there would need to be a serious improvement in his 200m free time to do that. Achieving an overall medal tally of eight - a mark only Phelps and Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin have reached - looks a lot more likely.
Seven golds in one Games could also be a possibility, especially if Dressel competes in the 4x200m relay, which apart from Phelps, only one athlete has ever achieved - another American legend in Mark Spitz.
While we have been picking all this apart, it seems chasing Phelps is not something Dressel is particularly interested in.
Speaking to The Associated Press in 2019, he said: “I don’t want to say I just brush it off, because I know it’s going to be inevitable, but that’s not why I’m in this sport... It’s not to beat Michael. It’s not to go faster than Michael.”
Instead, maybe it will be that Dressel will make his own history by setting a few new world records. Even if he cannot match Phelps, you can bet his successor as America’s best male swimmer will impress in Tokyo.
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