“I was hungry to get back in the water, to start training again and looking for ways to improve. I don’t ever want to get complacent. I know it could have been better. As soon as Worlds ended, I was already in 2020.
“My mindset right now is not Olympics,” however, he said by phone from his training base in Florida, two weeks after proposing marriage to his long-time girlfriend, Meghan Haila.
“It’s on the little steps along the way,” Dressel said. “It’s having a great practice tomorrow morning and trying to improve in those two hours, then moving on and having a great day. It’s really like having a flashlight in front of you and making sure you’re taking the right steps toward the light at the end of the tunnel.”
What are a few things you’re currently working on – flaws you’d like to correct? And, on the flip side, what do you think you do exceptionally well?
I come to practice every day with the mindset that I’m there to get better. I don’t like when people watch my practices or record my practice because, for me, that’s a very emotional time. That’s my window to improve and I just want it to be between me, my team-mates and my coach. I take practice very serious. When I have a good practice, it’s usually going to be a good day. When I have a bad practice, I usually have trouble sleeping at night. My ability to focus can also hurt me. When I come off a meet, I hold on to things I should have done better, rather than the things I did good. [Gregg] Troy does a good job of talking me through that, and if Troy says it’s a good meet then I know I need to shut my mouth and move on. So my downfall and my strongest point is my ability to focus and my mindset that I’m there to get better.
Money can complicate a lot of things
Is it true that in 2018 you had an injury that required you to turn without touching the wall? If so, what was the injury, what happened, and how did you work around it?
It wasn’t an injury per se. I had minor surgery on my big toe to reattach a ligament that had been detached since high school. It was more annoying than painful. Occasionally it would dislocate. I’d been dealing with it for six years. I thought it was a good year to get it re-attached. I would have been fine the rest of my life if it didn’t get fixed. But I was ready to have my body in one piece. We worked around it in the weight room. I still did leg exercises. I just avoided putting pressure on my foot.
How did the surgery compromise your swimming?
I couldn’t really push off the walls for maybe four or six weeks. Everything I did was from a dead stop because I didn’t want to just push off my left leg and have it get a lot stronger [than the right]. So I did most of my stuff before the turn, then started again from a dead stop. For the most part, I think I benefited from it. I got really good at pulling. I got really good at generating speed from a dead stop. If anything, it was a plus.
You mentioned that swimming is your job now. What do you think is the biggest misconception – or a misconception – about being a professional swimmer?
I think money. Money can complicate a lot of things. I’ve never been a fan of media stuff, I’m sorry. If it were up to me, it would be me, the water, my training, coach Troy and my team-mates, and that’s it. I don’t want to be famous. I just want to see how far I can take what I’ve been given and try to reach my maximum potential. That’s it. I never want to lose the mindset of an age grouper whose only worry is going best times. Honestly, if I finish second in a heat and go a best time, I’m probably going to be pretty happy.
Have you ever hit a plateau or a moment when you weren’t getting best times? If so, when? How long? And how did you get through it?
My biggest fear in the sport is plateauing. I don’t think I have plateaued. If I have a bad meet or a bad year, it doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway. The meets and practices that are really a struggle, I think, is where I learn the most. Some of the darkest places I’ve been to in the sport, when you’re really struggling, you learn a lot about yourself. So if I’m not going best times anymore, I wouldn’t say, ‘Let me bail on the sport.’ If I reach a point where I don’t think I’m learning anything, then I’ll step away. But the way I operate, I know that day will never come.
Speaking of learning, how many coaches have you had in your career besides Gregg Troy? I mean significant coaches, not one-day coaches.
Any coach I’ve had has been significant, all the way back to P.E. coaches. Coaches are very special people. Besides Troy, I’ve had Steve [Jungbluth], [Anthony] Nesty, [Martyn] Wilby, Matt [DeLancey] my strength coach, Jason Traylor, assistant strength coaches. Paula, Josh at U.F. In high school I had coach Jason [Calanog], Sergio [Lopez]. Before that, I had coach Sean, coach Porter…
Wait, you just listed at least 12 coaches.
Yes, and that’s just in swimming. There’s been some from ages 4 and 5 whose names slip in my mind. I don’t overlook any coach just because I’m not currently working with them. They’ve all put effort into getting me to this point in my career. Even my physical education coaches during volleyball in gym class; I still consider that coaching. It’s a very important role; I don’t take it lightly. We [athletes] are our most vulnerable around them. The place where I’m most vulnerable is at practice. That’s where I don’t hold anything back. That’s where I feel I can really be myself, with all my emotions on my sleeve. I walk on deck, and there’s nothing I can hide. Coaches know if I’ve had a bad day. I wear it on my face. I walk in and Troy’s like, ‘Agh, he’s had a rough day or it’s been a rough week.’ It takes a special person to do that and not just think: What set can I give this kid to make him improve? Instead, it’s: Let me read his body language, let me talk with him, let me put all this emotional energy into this kid so I can try to maximise his potential. It’s the same thing with teachers.
Aside from coaches and teachers, are there any particular swimmers you like to learn from?
I’ve never had one swimmer in particular to where I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s my guy; this is the guy I want to develop all my strokes after.’ But there’s Ryan Lochte, of course. I’ve studied his underwater kick. When I swim next to him in practice I’ll occasionally stop what I’m doing, look up and try to copy some of what he’s doing. I’m even taking things from Ryan’s backstroke. I don’t swim backstroke at all. But he’s got one of the smoothest, easiest strokes I’ve ever seen. Who else? [My mixed relay team-mate] Mallory Comerford’s 100 free. She does a great job of putting her head down in the last 15 metres – and TRULY the last 15 metres. I used to put my head down around the 12-metre mark, then I saw her do it and I was like, ‘Dang! I have to try 15 instead of cheating up towards the 12-metre mark.’ I’ve watched Michael Phelps’ front-end catch of the butterfly even though we have very different strokes. It’s not all just technique, either. I like Katie Ledecky’s mental game and how she approaches each meet. I think I’m very similar to her in that all she would want at the end of the day is: her, the pool and her coach. I can relate to Katie that way. But really, there’s anybody! I mean, even at stroke clinics I do, I’ll tell the kids, who could be ages 8 to 18, ‘I’ll consider this a successful day if ya’ll learn something and I learn something from you.’ In swimming, there could be something an 8-year-old is doing better than me. I truly believe that. There’s no shame in taking something that an 8-year-old’s doing and trying to learn from that.
Have you ever tried something that turned out to be a complete disaster?
Never a complete disaster, but I dabbled with trying to do straight-arm freestyle when I was in high school. At this point, I think I’ve kind of honed in on my exact stroke and kick count, but two years ago, in 100 fly, I had a different stroke count and kick count when I put my head down going to the walls, and when I put my head down going into the last 15 metres. It’s always changing. I never say, ‘This is what I’m doing from now until the end of my career.’ I will have a set race plan before I go into the water; I know exactly what I’m going to do. But after that meet, I’m not scared to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should change this.’ It’s fun to try new things. I get very bored sometimes. That’s why I swim a lot of different events in-season.