BUDAPEST, Hungary — Caeleb Dressel knows the comparisons are coming.
After pulling off an unprecedented Triple Crown at swimming’s world championships, it’s time to take on the legacy of Michael Phelps.
The 20-year-old Dressel established himself as America’s newest star of the pool Saturday, becoming the first swimmer to win three gold medals on a single night at either the worlds or the Olympics.
Not even Phelps managed such an audacious feat.
“The comparisons are probably inevitable,” Dressel said. “But I’m not the same person as Michael.”
Yet it was downright Phelps-like the way he pulled off a remarkable night of swimming at Duna Arena. Dressel raced three times over the course of about two hours — and won every time. Not to mention, he had to find time to warm down and get to three medal ceremonies.
“I think I only had to run twice,” Dressel said with a smile.
The University of Florida student — yep, he’s got an algebra exam coming up Monday that he’ll be taking online — has won six golds medals in Budapest.
That gives him a shot at moving into more rarified territory: Phelps is the only swimmer to win seven golds at a world championships, which he did at Melbourne in 2007 as a prelude to his record eight golds the following year at the Beijing Olympics.
Dressel will be a virtual lock to win his seventh when he competes on the 4×100 medley relay Sunday, the final event of the championships.
Again, those comparisons to Phelps.
“It’s a tough question,” Dressel said. “I don’t know if I welcome them. But I know they’re going to come. I don’t think it puts any pressure on me. I just want to keep doing my thing at this meet and for the future.”
Phelps was certainly impressed.
He texted his congratulations shortly after Dressel led off a world-record performance in the 4×100-meter mixed freestyle relay, capping a night that also included victories in the 50 free and the 100 butterfly.
“This kid is on fire!!” Phelps wrote on Instagram, including a picture of him celebrating with Dressel during a gold medal-winning relay they were both on last summer at the Rio Olympics. “So damn fun to watch buddy!!!!”
Dressel started the night with a furious dash from one end of the pool to the other, adding the 50 free world title to the 100 free he already had. He came back about a half-hour later to nearly break Phelps’ world record in the 100 fly, posting a time of 49.86 that was just four-hundredths off the mark set in 2009 at the rubber suit-aided championships in Rome.
The final relay was merely a coronation, the Americans romping to gold in 3 minutes, 19.60 seconds — eclipsing by nearly 3 1/2 seconds the mark they set two years ago at worlds.
“Man, that was a lot of fun,” Dressel said.
He even managed to overshadow Katie Ledecky, who won her fifth gold medal of the meet by cruising to victory in the 800 free. Yet Budapest will be remembered as bit of a disappointment for the star of the 2016 Summer Games, who settled for silver in the 200 free and didn’t come close to breaking any of her personal bests.
Ledecky won in 8:12.68, which was nearly 8 seconds off her world record at Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve never walked away from a season completely satisfied, even last year,” she said. “I can really take what I’ve learned and use it moving forward. It gets me really excited. If that was my bad year for the next four years, then the next couple years are going to be pretty exciting.”
Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom was another standout, bouncing back from a disappointing loss the previous night to win gold in the 50 fly and set a world record in the semifinals of 50 free. Her time of 23.67 broke the mark of 23.73, set in 2009 by Britta Steffen.
In the women’s 200 backstroke, Emily Seebohm of Australia shrugged off the roaring Hungarian crowd to take gold over home-country favorite Katinka Hosszu.
Sjostrom set her second world record of the meet, having already established a new standard in the 100 free while swimming the leadoff leg of the 4×100 free relay.
But even the Swedish star took note of Dressel’s performance.
“I don’t even know if he went to the Olympics last year,” she said. “He took a really big step this year as we can see. It’s really impressive, really cool to see.”
Indeed, Dressel has emerged as the breakout performer of these championships, with a bit of help from the relatively new mixed relays. Two of his golds came in events that feature men and women on the same team, races Phelps never competed in at worlds.
“It’s crazy,” Dressel said. “But I had mixed relays helping me out, so it’s a bit different.”
Yet no less impressive.
Dressel led off the mixed free relay with a blistering time of 47.22 for the first 100 — even more remarkable given what he’d already been through — and his three teammates — Nathan Adrian, Mallory Comerford and Simone Manuel — took it from there.
“That last relay was a lot of fun,” Dressel said. “I wanted to lead it off even though it meant less to get ready for it. It was such a blast.”
The whole night was.
“I haven’t had much time to think,” Dressel said, pondering the significance of it all. “As physically demanding as it is, mentally it’s even more straining. So I have 24 hours until my next swim. I’ll give myself 30 minutes tonight to, I guess, let it sink in a bit, then it’s time to refocus for that relay tomorrow.”
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