Gene Frenette: High-stakes anxiety as families of Olympic swimmers Dressel, Murphy also feel the pressure

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union

For a seven-day period last week at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb., everything lined up perfectly for Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy, the most dominant pair of male swimmers in Northeast Florida history. 

They captured all five of the individual events in which they were respectively entered: 50-meter freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly for Dressel, and 100-meter backstroke and 200 backstroke for Murphy. The duo established themselves as favorites in those events at next month’s Tokyo Olympics, with the possibility of earning a combined 10 or 11 medals in the Summer Games when factoring in relays both will be entered. 

On the surface, the trials for Dressel, a Clay High product, and Murphy, a Bolles School graduate, went as smoothly as many in the swimming world had expected. But for family and friends who were at the CHI Health Center to watch every stroke and had national television cameras spotlighting them for each race, it can be an awkward, stressful time. 

“It never gets any easier, not at all,” said Christina Dressel, Caeleb’s mother. “Once he makes the Olympic team, I’m pretty good. But until then, it’s very difficult for me to watch the race.” 

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Mike Dressel, Christina’s husband and Caeleb’s father, confirms that his wife is usually a bundle of nerves before the high-stakes races. And the Olympic Trials is, in some ways, the biggest because only the top two finishers in each event qualify for the Summer Games. 

Though Mike hasn’t experienced it due to Caeleb’s success, he’s well aware of the depth of disappointment for the swimmers who fall short of qualifying for the Olympics. 

“It’s heartbreak,” said Mike, a Clay County veterinarian. “The first two into the wall, they’re celebrating. The others, there’s a lot of crying when they walk off the pool deck and go down into that room. As a dad, I wonder how healthy it is for the kids to be under that kind of pressure, but that’s part of pursuing such a big dream.” 

With the deep talent on the U.S. squad, all it takes is one slip-up, one bad turn off the wall, and four years of work — in this case, five years because the 2020 Olympics were delayed due to the pandemic — by the most accomplished swimmer can result in disaster. 

Hours before Dressel won his 100 free final on June 17 to officially qualify, heavy favorite Simone Manuel, the defending Olympic champion in the women’s 100 free, finished a shocking ninth in the semifinals and failed to make the finals. 

It was a grim reminder that there are no guarantees at the trials for anybody. 

Caeleb Dressel's family — from left, wife Meghan, sister Sherridon, mother Christina, father Mike, sister Kaitlyn, brother Tyler and Tyler's fiancee Hannah Anhalt — watch his performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.

Families on edge 

Manuel’s stunning upset only added to the apprehension the Dressel family, especially Christina, was feeling before Caeleb’s 100 free final. Among the Dressel party in attendance was Meghan, his wife of four months, along with siblings Kaitlyn, Sherridon — also an Olympic Trials participant in the women’s 100 and 200 backstroke — brother Tyler and his fiancee, Hannah Anhalt.  

“Christina is 100 percent the most anxious one,” Mike said. “Everyone else’s adrenaline is up, but sometimes Christina can barely watch. She will bury her head in my arm in some races.” 

While Sherridon was happy to make the trials and didn’t advance past the preliminaries, the anxiety levels for Caeleb’s races — as was the case with Ryan Murphy supporters — were elevated among over two dozen relatives and friends in attendance because they were expected to win. 

The Murphy family gathers outside at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. From left, Ryan, mother Katy, father Pat and sister Shannon.

Katy Murphy, Ryan’s mother and a Ponte Vedra Beach resident, says her mindset was much different from the 2016 trials when her son qualified, then went on to win gold medals in both backstroke events and a medley relay at the Rio Olympics. 

“I thought he had a great shot to qualify last time, but he was only 20 then and about to turn 21,” Katy said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of expectations. Nobody outside the swimming world knew who Ryan was. In 2016 it was more about the physical swimming. This time, I was more attuned to the emotional and mental side and how Ryan handled it all.”

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Murphy, on the strength of a fast start and well-executed turn, overcame Shaine Casas’ slight lead and then held off 20-year-old Ohio State swimmer Hunter Armstrong at the finish to capture the 100 back event on the trials’ second night in 52.33. He won only by a margin of .15 seconds. 

“Hunter made up a lot of time in the second 50,” Katy said. “I had to go back and re-watch it because from our seats about 35-40 meters from the finish line, it was a little hard to see the end.” 

Seconds after Ryan gave a clenched fist upon winning, NBC cameras panned to the crowd and captured Katy and husband Pat clapping over the result. Next to them was maternal grandfather, Mike Sullivan, and Ryan’s longtime girlfriend, Bridget Konttinen, a former Cal rower who currently works for Nike in the Bay area. 

Ryan’s brother, Patrick, was busy down in the pool deck as an analytics employee for U.S.A. Swimming. He also handed the qualifying Olympians a Sharpie to sign the large drum by the pool as part of a trials tradition. His sister Shannon arrived later in the week to watch Ryan win the 200.  

“I think it was more nerve-racking this time around,” Pat said. “The expectations are greater, which sort of creates the nervousness if he somehow doesn’t [qualify]. Once he makes the team, some of the pressure goes away. I wasn’t worried with the 200 back.” 

He turned out to be right. Three days after clinching his Olympic spot, Murphy won the 200 comfortably in 1:54.20, over a half-second faster than Cal teammate Bryce Mefford. 

Meanwhile, the night before, at the urging of her family, Christina Dressel decided to actually watch Caeleb race to victory in the 100 free in an American record-tying time of 47.39 seconds. Immediately his family came 20 rows down to the railing to greet him. 

First came a kiss from Meghan, then collective hugs from Christina and Kaitlyn, and finally the embrace from Mike. 

“It’s just a big relief,” Christina said. “That’s a mom thing, getting to hug him [after the race] and I’m good to go.” 

With a large mural of Caeleb Dressel in the background, his sister Kaitlyn and wife Meghan jump outside the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb., at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Caeleb’s star keeps rising 

The Dressels and Murphys have been going to their kids’ swim meets for over two decades. The relationship among the two families goes back to their days in River City Swimming when the kids were 5 years old, then later with Caeleb and Ryan as teammates on the Bolles Sharks club team. 

“I remember Caeleb was so shy, he didn’t talk to anybody,” said Katy Murphy, who got to know Christina and daughter Kaitlyn while attending meets in Gainesville, Orlando and Jacksonville. “Caeleb got all of Ryan’s records in River City Swimming.” 

And now here the families were again in Omaha, their kids all grown up, trying to add to the Olympic glory they had achieved in Rio and at subsequent World Championships. 

Caeleb, though he failed to win individual medals at the 2016 Olympics, is regarded as America’s biggest male swimming star. That was evident at the trials when right there on the side of the CHI Health Center was a large mural of only three Olympians: Dressel along with two female swimmers, Katie Ledecky and Manuel. 

“I was given a heads-up that he was going to be on a building, but I didn’t think it was going to be anything like that,” Mike said. “It was him next to Katie Ledecky and about 100 foot tall. Our perception looking at it was that means there’s more pressure.” 

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No worries. Caeleb flourished under the spotlight. Just as he did in winning a combined 15 medals, including 13 gold, at the 2017 and ‘19 World Championships, the 24-year-old Gainesville area resident had little trouble following his 100-free victory on Thursday. Caeleb won the 100 fly Saturday in 49.87 seconds, the sixth time he swam under 50 seconds. 

Sunday night, which happened to be Father’s Day, he capped a perfect week by touching the wall first in the 50 free in 21.04 seconds. He then brought out emotions in Mike during his post-race interview with NBC’s Brendan Hansen. 

“He said, ‘Hey, Dad, happy Father’s Day,’" Mike said. “I teared up a bit. I wasn’t expecting it.” 

Besides that gift, Caeleb also had a surprise for some kids attending the trials. He gave away all three of his medals for them to keep. 

“I saw him hang a gold medal around a little girl’s neck,” Mike said. “He just randomly gave his medals to some little kids. I thought that was really kind.” 

The Murphy family in Omaha during the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming this month. From left, mother Katy, Ryan, sister Shannon and father Pat.

Treasuring time together 

Due to the trials being once every four years, families and friends of competitors have a great appreciation for not just the moments of triumph, but for what little interaction they get with the swimmers. 

Unlike other athletes in sports played over several months each year, would-be Olympians are on a strict schedule during a grueling Trials week. 

The Dressels and Murphys had very limited contact with their sons. Ryan, who finished competing on Friday, was able to talk briefly with his family at a Speedo function Saturday night at a restaurant near the CHI Health Center, then met them for breakfast Sunday at the Hilton Hotel. He then headed back to Cal-Berkeley to prepare for the team’s departure to Hawaii this weekend for Olympic training. 

Caeleb told his party of 26 people (some relatives/friends came from Rhode Island, Delaware and Georgia) he wanted to socialize a bit at his hotel Saturday night, but swimming in three events over five consecutive days made it difficult to carve out family time. He then had dinner with only his immediate family Sunday night before embarking on the next step of his Olympic journey. 

“It’s a long and quick week,” Mike Dressel said. “The waiting part until Thursday [for Caeleb’s first final] was hard.” 

In this pandemic-impaired Olympic year, saying goodbye was especially tough because families of American participants are unable to attend the Summer Games due to a ban on international travel into Japan. The Dressels and Murphys will either watch the Olympics from their respective homes or possibly in Orlando at an NBC gathering. 

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“One part I’m going to miss at the Olympics is the bonding with other parents,” Mike said. “You meet all kinds of people there you’d never meet in your life. Parents who will have kids there for the first time, they don’t know what they’re missing.” 

Katy Murphy has fond memories of Tokyo from the 2018 Pan-Pacific Games, where Ryan won all of his events and was named Male Swimmer of the Year. While she wishes she could go to Japan to see her son compete, Katy is too overwhelmed with other duties besides swimming. 

Thursday morning she and Pat hopped on a plane for Chicago to start planning daughter Shannon’s bridal shower on Saturday, plus other ancillary activities. Once the Olympics were moved to 2021, it became too complicated to change the pre-wedding plans. Shannon and her fiance, Jordan, a recent master’s graduate at Northwestern, are getting married on Sept. 25. 

“I can’t control anything when it comes to Ryan’s meet, but I can control everything for the bridal shower,” Katy said. “That’s the big difference.” 

This year has been one milestone event after another for the families of Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy. With quite possibly more Olympic celebrations to come. (904) 359-4540