Olympic star Caeleb Dressel returned to the competition pool after a layoff of nearly a year, placing second in the 100-meter butterfly at a low-key meet in Atlanta on Friday.
Wearing a plain white cap and red suit, he seemed pleased with his performance after touching second behind 20-year-old Canadian Josh Liendo. Dressel smiled and joked around with teammates after climbing from the water.
The runner-up time of 52.41 seconds was nearly 3 seconds slower than Dressel’s world-record performance of 49.45 at the Tokyo Olympics, where he won five gold medals.
But the clock wasn’t really important at this meet, which was made up largely of local and regional swimmers, mixed with a handful of recognizable names such as Olympic champions Katie Ledecky and Bobby Finke, as well as 16-year-old world record holder Summer McIntosh.
This was more about Dressel competing again — 11 months after his mysterious withdrawal from the world championships in Budapest.
A couple of young fans held up signs that said “Go Caeleb Dressel” when he was introduced at the Georgia Tech aquatics center, site of the swimming competition at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Dressel was third at the turn and finished strong, but not nearly fast enough to chase down Liendo, who won in 51.79.
Liendo captured a silver and two bronze medals at last year’s world championships. The first Black Canadian to win an individual medal at a major international meet, he could be one of Dressel’s chief rivals at the Paris Olympics.
Dressel wasn’t ready to take questions about why he needed time away from the sport. His Florida swim group, which also includes Ledecky and Liendo, sent word through meet officials that they weren’t doing any media interviews.
Last June, Dressel suddenly left the world championships in Budapest with little explanation. He would later indicate he needed to take a break to rekindle his love of swimming.
In Budapest, Dressel won a pair of gold medals and swam the preliminaries of the 100-meter freestyle before he withdrew from that event ahead of the semifinals, with a vague statement from USA Swimming citing medical reasons.
Dressel did not take part in any other events at the worlds and had not raced until his return in Atlanta.
In a rare post on social media last September, Dressel provided about the only detailed update on his status. He has talked previously about the pressure and mental health struggles he faced ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which included panic attacks and depression.
“Hey friends I haven’t been on here at all but I wanted to share an update with what I’ve been up to,” Dressel wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t swam since worlds and can honestly say I have been happy without swimming. I really miss it though.
“A few things I’ve done,” he went on. “I finally went on a honeymoon to Iceland, I bought a tractor, hiked another section of the Appalachian Trail, swam with some manatees. I know I can have swimming and happiness. I had them both at one point in my life and I’m working on it. If you need a break, take one. I’ll be back.”
Dressel had been entered in two events Friday, but withdrew from the 200 freestyle in the morning preliminaries with a designated false start.
Dressel was one of the biggest stars at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics, becoming one of just 13 athletes to win as many as five gold medals at a single games.
Dressel switched coaches a few months after the Olympics, moving from longtime mentor Gregg Troy to the training group led by Anthony Nesty, the new star of the American coaching ranks.
Ledecky moved to Florida to work with Nesty after her graduation from Stanford. Liendo attends college at Florida in Gainesville.
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