BUDAPEST, Hungary — Caeleb Dressel’s teammates knew they just witnessed one of those special moments in sports, when a talented athlete has his breakout performance.
“Just seeing that domination,” is the way Matt Grevers put it. “You’re seeing a star being born. It’s really cool to see.”
Even if Dressel goes on to do some truly remarkable things, he’ll always remember the world championships along the Danube.
This was his moment.
On Sunday, the 20-year-old University of Florida student joined Michael Phelps as the only swimmers to win seven gold medals at worlds, a feat that also included something Phelps never did — winning three gold medals on the same night at a major international meet .
Indeed, it was really cool.
“I’m pretty tired, but, you know, it’s been a good season, a good year, and to put together a seven-day meet, it’s a really nice feeling,” Dressel said after closing the championships with another dominating swim in the 4×100-meter medley relay. “There’s a lot more that goes into this than just the seven days that people see, so I’m very happy to be done.”
He’s got some classwork to take care of — an online algebra exam beckons — but he’s looking forward to a bit of a break. He plans to travel around Europe, hanging out with some of his college teammates, before heading back home to begin the fall semester.
Dressel has no idea how long it will take to appreciate the enormity of his accomplishment. Until he got to Hungary, his most noteworthy accomplishment was swimming on a winning relay team with Phelps at last summer’s Rio Olympics.
“I’m not sure,” Dressel said, still a bit dazed by it all. “That’s a good answer: I don’t know.”
He won the 50 and 100 freestyles, and nearly took down Phelps’ world record in the 100 butterfly. Dressel was a beast on the relays, taking part in four gold medal-winning performances while swimming both the free and fly.
Phelps was the first to win seven golds at worlds a decade ago in Melbourne, Australia — a prelude to his unprecedented eight golds the following year at the Beijing Olympics.
Phelps’ feat still stands supreme since five of his seven golds were in individual events, and he didn’t have the benefit of the mixed relays. Dressel won a pair of golds in those relatively new races, which he was quick to point out after his three wins Saturday.
But the comparisons to the winningest athlete in Olympic history are sure to pick up steam heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Dressel swam the fly in the final event of the meet, taking over for the third leg with the Americans facing a slight deficit after world record-holder Adam Peaty pushed Britain ahead on the breaststroke.
Not to worry.
Dressel surged to the front with a down-and-back time of 49.76 — the only butterfly swimmer to break 50 seconds. Nathan Adrian took over for the freestyle anchor with a comfortable lead, pulling away to win in 3 minutes, 27.91 seconds. Britain settled for the silver, more than a second behind.
When Adrian touched, Dressel hugged his other teammates, Grevers and Kevin Cordes. As everyone else walked off deck, Dressel lingered a bit, watching a replay of the race on the video board.
It must have seemed more than a little surreal.
“I’ve never had had it happen,” Dressel said, “so I don’t really know what to say.”
To the surprise of no one, he was named the top male swimmer of the meet. The female award when to Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, who set a pair of individual world records in Budapest and now holds four slots in the record book, also posting the fastest times ever in the 50 and 100 fly.
Lilly King would’ve been a worthy recipient of the women’s award, as well.
The brash 20-year-old from Indiana eclipsed her second individual world record of the meet in the 50 breaststroke, again besting Russian rival Yulia Efimova, and returned as part of the women’s 4×100 medley relay that also broke the world record.
In all, King was part of four world-record swims.
“I couldn’t imagine a better finish to this meet,” she said.
The U.S. finished with 18 golds and 38 medals overall — a huge improvement over the previous worlds two years ago in Kazan, where the Americans managed just eight golds and 23 medals.
There were great performances all around, from Katie Ledecky’s five golds and a silver to Simone Manuel’s five golds and a bronze to the 32-year-old Grevers claiming four medals just a year after missing out on the Olympic team, a disappointment that left him pondering retirement.
But the biggest winner was Dressel.
“I’m going to take a little break,” he said. “Just enjoy myself, you know.”
He certainly earned it.