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Swim star Caeleb Dressel on comparisons to Michael Phelps: 'I don't think it's fair'

In a conversation with TODAY’s Craig Melvin, the 24-year-old talks life in and out of the pool and reveals what he really thinks of being compared to the greatest Olympian of all time.
/ Source: TODAY

Caeleb Dressel has been a rising star in the water for Team USA ever since the winningest Olympian ever, Michael Phelps, retired from the pool. But that doesn’t mean he’s looking to follow in his former teammate's strokes.

During an interview on TODAY aired Wednesday, the 24-year-old opened up about his approach in the Tokyo Games and beyond, revealing what he actually thinks of being compared to the 23-time Olympic gold medalist.

Caeleb Dressel
Caeleb Dressel of Team USA prepares to compete in the men's 100m freestyle semifinal on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 28, 2021.Tom Pennington / Getty Images

“I don't think it's fair to Michael,” Dressel said in a sit down with Craig Melvin. “He's a better swimmer than me. I'm completely fine with saying that. That's not my goal in the sport, to beat Michael. I'm a very different athlete than Michael. He was at a whole other level.”

While he knows the parallels some like to draw between him and Phelps are well-meant, Dressel, who won two gold medals at the Rio Games alongside his superstar pal, doesn’t want to swim in his wake.

Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel
Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning gold in the final of the men's 4x100m freestyle relay during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star via Getty Images

“I'm fine if people want to compare me to him,” Dressel continued. “I have some goals that I would like to accomplish to where I can consider myself to be great, and I don't have to compare myself to Michael to consider myself to be great.”

And what does he consider greatness at the Tokyo Games? His answer might surprise fans.

“If I learn something from the meet, to move forward into next year, if I learn something about myself as a man, as a person, as an athlete, as a swimmer, I'll be happy with it,” he said.

The lack of medal mentions wasn’t an oversight, even though he recently won a gold in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay. In fact, after winning that gold, he tossed his medal into the stands to teammate Brooks Curry, who’d helped Dressel, Bowen Becker, Blake Pieroni and Zach Apple qualify for the event by swimming in the preliminary heats. Dressel told TODAY, “He’ll keep it until he gets his.”

Maybe even longer.

“It's not about that for me,” Dressel noted during the Wednesday interview. “I don't keep any of that stuff. You guys should be jealous. I get to do the fun part which is racing. I get to enjoy the race. ... I don't need a piece of medal to remind me of that. I got to enjoy it.”

Caeleb Dressel
Caeleb Dressel reacts after competing in the men's 100m freestyle semifinal on day five of the Tokyo Olympic Games.Tom Pennington / Getty Images

That straightforward approach to the competition and appreciation for the sport is what keeps him diving back into the pool.

“I think simple’s good,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy swimming. It’s very primitive, very simple. ‘Let me see if I can go faster than you.’ There’s no judging, no scores. Just time. ‘Let me get my hand on the wall faster than you.’”

For the Florida native, that mirrors his philosophy on life.

“I think greatness is found within mundanity, those boring little ticks throughout the day," Dressel explained. “I call it putting pennies in the bank. My coach calls it putting tools in the toolbox. I think that's where greatness is found. People want to dream up this big, giant goal without putting the stepping stones along the way, and for me, that's what gets you to that giant goal.”