How Caeleb Dressel overcame mental health struggles to become seven-time Olympic gold medalist

Caeleb Dressel, one of USA’s swimming icons, will undoubtedly draw all eyes as he arrives at the Olympic village for the 2024 Paris Games. Despite missing out on his trademark 100m individual freestyle event by a mere .06 seconds in qualification, Dressel remains poised to chase another world title in the 4x100m relay, aiming for a third consecutive Olympic triumph with Team USA.

But the road to Olympic glory hasn’t been without its mental hurdles for Dressel. Tasked early on with filling the colossal shoes of Michael Phelps after the latter’s retirement from international competition post-Rio 2016, Dressel found himself thrust into the spotlight. The pressure was immense, magnified by his looming debut at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2021, where even his likeness adorned buildings, a stark reminder of the expectations weighing heavily upon him.

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In such a high-stakes environment, Dressel battled inner demons that threatened to derail his path to success. His swimming logbook, once a tool of triumph, became a repository of fears and anxieties. “Yeah, F— me, f—ing terrible. My body is done,” Dressel recounted, reflecting on the profound toll that self-doubt and anxiety had taken on him.

This wasn’t the first time Dressel confronted mental health challenges. From his early days as a highly touted swimming prodigy committed to the University of Florida, the weight of expectations proved overwhelming. Panic attacks became a haunting reality, leaving Dressel incapacitated and withdrawn from the world around him. “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,’” recalled his mother, Christina.

Yet, Dressel’s resilience shone through. Emerging from periods of darkness, he returned to the pool with renewed vigor, clinching NCAA titles and eventually striking gold at the Olympics. Despite setbacks, including a hiatus in 2022 due to undisclosed health issues, Dressel has consistently rebounded, his determination undiminished.

Reflecting on his journey, Dressel acknowledged the pivotal role of mental fortitude in his recent successes. “The mental side of the sport has been the biggest difference for me this year,” he affirmed, underscoring his newfound ability to confront and channel both negative and positive mental chatter into fuel for his performances.

As Dressel prepares to make his mark once again in Paris, his story serves as a testament to resilience, reminding us that even the most decorated athletes face unseen battles off the podium. With each stroke, Dressel navigates not just the physical demands of swimming, but also the mental challenges that define his path to greatness.