Caeleb Dressel got candid about how immense pressure impacted his mental health leading up to the Tokyo Olympics — and even in the aftermath of last summer’s record-setting performance.
In an interview with Graham Bensinger airing fully this weekend, the seven-time Olympic gold medalist revealed profanity-laced reflections in a logbook from just a month before the 2021 Olympic Trials.
“Yeah, ‘F**k me, f**king terrible. My body is done.’ Oh jeez… I know I’m laughing a little bit, but when you’re writing this, this isn’t as a joke,” Dressel said. “This is good information. ‘F**k me. F**k my body. F**k swimming.’ Jeez. Yeah there’s a totally different side of the sport that a lot of people don’t see… I try to be as honest with myself as I can in these books ’cause these aren’t for — well until now — these aren’t really for anybody else’s eyes.”
Breaking two world records in Tokyo still couldn’t stop high expectations from clouding his record-setting performance.
“I didn’t hit any of my goal times in Tokyo,” Dressel said. “Yeah… And that’s not fair to myself. That’s not fair at all. Like I just won five gold medals on the biggest world stage in sports, and I’m thinking about how I wish I would’ve gone faster in certain events.”
Perfectionism, it seems, can be a dangerous, double-edged sword.
“Usually you’re trying to motivate someone to be better than what they think they can be,” said his former coach, Gregg Troy, who he parted ways with amicably last November. “And now you’ve got a guy that’s as good as or better than anyone and he never thinks it’s good enough.”
“I think that’s what makes me great,” Dressel added, “but I think that can also be detrimental if I want to have longevity in the sport.”
Dressel joins a chorus of other top athletes including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka in openly discussing mental health issues. Dressel’s family and friends recalled his first bouts with panic attacks and depression as a high school senior, which coincided with his emergence into the national spotlight as a top recruit for the University of Florida.
“I didn’t want to do anything — wasn’t going to school, wasn’t swimming,” Dressel said. “[I] was pretty much just laying in bed for all hours of the day, for a couple months.”
“[He] didn’t want to eat,” said his mother, Christina. “I was like, ‘Caeleb you have to get out of this dark room… He was just in a deep depression. He just didn’t want to be around people… I think it was just a reminder of, ‘Great, I let this person down ‘cause I didn’t get a world record.’”
With no Michael Phelps at the Olympics for the first time in decades, the stage grew to unprecedented sizes for Dressel. Troy described the months following Tokyo as “his senior year on steroids,” in terms of mental health struggles.
“Yeah, it’s brutal,” Dressel said. “I think the added attention, the monumental moment in our sport is the Olympic games, an event that happens once every four years… my longest race is lasting 49 seconds, my shortest is lasting 21 seconds.”
In his first major meet under new coaches Anthony Nesty and Steve Jungbluth, Dressell won the 100m free in 47.79 at U.S. trials on Tuesday, qualifying for June’s world championships. He’s looking to capture his third straight world title in the showcase sprint. Dressel was a no-show for the 200m free prelims on Wednesday morning. He is slated to compete in the 50m fly finals on Wednesday night, the 100m fly on Thursday and the 50m free on Saturday. He is the defending world champion in each of those three remaining races.