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2021: MALE SWIMMER OF THE YEAR: CAELEB DRESSEL, USA
It’s hard to argue that anyone other than Caeleb Dressel is worthy of winning this award. Dressel won the most gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, set 2 world records, and was the fastest man in the world in 5 different individual events.
We’ll start off with Dressel’s 2021 apex; the Tokyo Olympics. Heading into the Games, Dressel had only ever won 2 Olympic medals in the form of 4×100 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays in 2016. Since Rio 2016, however, he had risen in the world rankings and was considered a heavy contender to win triple gold in the men’s 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, and 100 butterfly.
Dressel started strong in the prelims round of all 3 of those events in Tokyo with a first-place ranking after round one of the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, along with a second-place finish in the 100 butterfly. Notably, Dressel exactly matched the Olympic record in the 100 butterfly during the heats with his 50.39.
During semi-finals, he was again on top of the field in both the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly, but Kliment Kolesnikov‘s powerful 47.11 relegated Dressel to land 5 in the final.
That 100 freestyle final was Dressel’s first individual final of the Games and he soared to victory, delivering a 47.02 swim to out-swim reigning champion Kyle Chalmers’ 47.08. It was his second-fastest swim in the event and marked a new Olympic record in the event, improving upon Eamon Sullivan‘s 47.05 from the 2008 Games. Dressel’s swim also ranked #4 all-time in the history of the event behind Cesar Cielo’s 46.91 world record, Alain Bernard’s 46.94, and his own 46.96 from the 2019 World Championships.
Dressel’s second individual Olympic final came two days later when he took to the men’s 100 butterfly. He had already tied the Olympic record with a 50.39, but he had swum a 49.50 world record in the event back in 2019. Dressel did not disappoint in the final and swam to gold with a 49.45 world record. He was 2-for-2 with 1 more event to swim.
On the final day of the Olympics, Dressel was set to race the 50 freestyle and was up against 2012 champion Florent Manaudou, long-time rivals Bruno Fratus and Ben Proud, teammate Michael Andrew, and the trio of Kristian Gkolomeev, Lorenzo Zazzeri, and Thom de Boer.
Just as he had done in the 100 freestyle and butterfly, Dressel got to the wall first in the 50 freestyle, posting a 21.07 Olympic record to take gold by nearly half a second. Manaudou followed with a 21.55, while Fratus placed 3rd in a 21.57. In a matter of days, Dressel had gone from 0 to 3 individual Olympic medals and had set three Olympic records and a new world record.
In terms of Olympic performances, Dressel was the only man to win more than two individual gold medals, he was the only man to break an Olympic record in more than one individual event, and was the only man to set an individual world record.
Aside from his individual performances, Dressel was also a key player in two gold medal-winning relays. Dressel opened things up for the American men with a field-leading 47.26 on the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay. As Blake Pieroni, Bowe Becker, and Zach Apple followed, the Americans ultimately topped the podium with a 3:08.97. In the men’s 4×100 medley, Dressel swam a 49.03 butterfly leg, which was the only sub-50 split in the entire heat. He, along with Ryan Murphy, Michael Andrew, and Zach Apple, together put up a 3:26.78 to set a new world record and win Olympic gold.
5 Olympic gold medals, three Olympic records, two world records. Caeleb Dressel was 2021’s male swimmer of the year.
As previously mentioned, Dressel was the fastest man in 5 different events individual events this year. Three of those events were long course events; the 3 in which he won Olympic gold. He was also the fastest man in 2021 in the short course 100 butterfly (48.53) and 100 IM (50.68), as well as the second-fastest man worldwide in both the 50 and 100 freestyles.
For a third straight season, Caeleb Dressel was a force to be reckoned with as a member of the Cali Condors in the International Swimming League. Perhaps Dressel’s most impressive feat during the 2021 ISL season was his ability to finish 8th overall in the MVP rankings despite only competing in 5 matches. For reference, league winner Sarah Sjostrom raced in 8 matches, second-ranked Ilya Shymanovich in 7, and all other top 10 finishers in 8.
Dressel was the only person in the whole league to score more than 100 points in 1 match when he raked in 112.50 points at match 4. At that meet, he won the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 50 butterfly, 100 butterfly, 100 IM, and the 50 freestyle skins. He picked up a number of additional wins at each meet he competed in this fall, including the 100 IM at the 2021 ISL final with a 50.74. Dressel finished 5th overall at that meet with 48.50 points.
With a 5-gold medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics, a myriad of record-breaking swims, and a consistently dominant showing in the short course pool, Caeleb Dressel was the top male performer in the world this year.
- Bobby Finke (USA): This year’s breakout male of the year Bobby Finke was a standout performer at the Tokyo Olympic Games. After a meteoric rise in the first half of 2021, Finke dropped two gold-medal performances at the Olympics in the 800 and 1500 freestyles. It was the first-ever men’s 800 freestyle at the Olympic Games, making him the inaugural victor of the event when he took gold in 7:41.87. That swim for Finke was also a major PB and a new American national record. Finke also topped the podium in the longest event at the meet with a 14:39.65, allowing him to crack the top 10 list of all-time performers in the event. Finke became known at the Olympics for his electrifying closing speed, having recorded a final 50 split of 26.39 in the 800 and a 25.78 in the 1500.
- Evgeny Rylov (RUS): Aside from Dressel and Finke, Russia’s Evgeny Rylov was the only other man to win multiple individual gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. He swam his way to victory in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the Games this year. In the 100 backstroke, he established a new European record of 51.98 for gold and became the 4th-fastest man in the history of the event. In the 200, he also earned a gold medal with his Olympic record-breaking performance of 1:53.27. His swims were enough to take out the reigning champ in both events, Ryan Murphy, and made him a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Rylov also won an Olympic silver medal at the Games in the 4×200 freestyle courtesy of his 1:45.26 split for the Russians. For his dominant showing in Tokyo, Rylov was also named European male swimmer of the year.