2017 U.S. Nationals Preview: Is This Caeleb Dressel's Time In The 50?

2017 U.S. National Championships & Worlds Trials

​June 27 - July 1, 2017
​Indianapolis, Indiana
​IUPUI Natatorium

​Caeleb Dressel​ ranks among the top five in American history for the 50-meter freestyle. His time of 21.53 at the National Championships in 2015 -- while the rest of the national team was racing at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia -- lifted him onto the list of elite U.S. swimmers. That time would have earned him a bronze medal in Kazan -- just 0.01 of a second behind countrymate ​Nathan Adrian ​in 21.52. 

Will this summer be the year Dressel qualifies to represent the United States in the 50? That completely depends on the competition. He is entering next week's Phillips 66 National Championships and World Championship Trials in Indianapolis ranked second behind Adrian.

The only problem is that popular opinion still says Dressel has yet to break onto the scene in the long course 50. When you're the best short course yards sprint freestyler -- ​by a longshot​ -- to date, his performance in the long course pool doesn't seem to add up.

Saying Dressel hasn't broken out in a long course 50 isn't fair to him. He isn't the best American sprinter (looking at combined success in the 50 ​and​ the 100). That title belongs to Adrian. Dressel is compared to a swimmer who is still active and having significant success.

Next is ​Anthony Ervin, the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Portraying Dressel as "not there yet" is more fair than saying he hasn't broken out. He had his breakthrough swim; it was in 2015. He just has yet to surpass two podium finishers at last summer's Olympics in Rio.

Dressel is still fighting the hard battle of swimming without walls. It is a battle that delays the summer success of stellar collegiate swimmers such as Dressel. In a 50-meter freestyle, he is taking more strokes than if he were racing short course.

At the 2017 NCAA Championships, the Florida junior took a total of 20 strokes to win the 50-yard freestyle. Last summer at the Trials in Omaha, NE, Dressel took 34. Although he isn't swimming a much farther distance (yards to meters), he is actually swimming more.

In setting a historic 100-yard freestyle time of 40.00 at NCAAs, Dressel didn't taken his 34th stroke until after the turn for home. At the 75-yard mark, he had only taken 32 strokes. Dressel relies substantially on underwaters, and 27 meters of his NCAA win came beneath the surface. Without the turn wall, Dressel simply runs out of momentum.

On the bright side, he doesn't fade speed-wise as the 50 progresses. Dressel's stroke rate in the last 15 meters at the 2016 Olympic Trials, the NCAAs, and the 2015 Nationals was identical. One stroke cycle took him 0.91 seconds.

He beats Ervin and Adrian in that category. Ervin is operating at 0.06 slower and Adrian at 0.12 slower. They are the fastest two in history.

Is Dressel not pulling water as efficiently, maybe? The most miniscule of differences in the 50 freestyle can make major differences. When he swam the 21.53, his stroke rate was 0.02 slower down the stretch.

2016 Olympic Trials Stroke Rate - 50m Freestyle
Name First 15m Final 15m
Nathan Adrian 0.94 1.03
Anthony Ervin 0.92 0.97
Caeleb Dressel 0.85 0.91

That difference is almost negligible but really so is 0.2 of a second. His counterparts are taking slower, seemingly more powerful strokes and producing faster times.

Ultimately, Dressel making the move from fifth all-time to first is going to take some adjustments, but it will also take time. A similar discussion happened when another swimmer who dominated the underwater game, Cal standout and 2016 Olympian ​Tom Shields​, finished his collegiate career.

Heading into next week's Trials, Dressel is essentially in the passenger seat on the way to Budapest.

Ervin is still around and so are many other top sprinters. If Dressel can improve how well he holds onto his early speed, he will set himself up to make another breakthrough. The learning curve from short to long course is working for him.

After the 2016 Olympic Games, nerves or fatigue appeared to limit his success in the 100 freestyle. Those, at least during the short course season, seem to have dissipated. Dressel pulled off a shocking upset of reigning Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling in the 100-yard butterfly at NCAAs -- again, another race that relied heavily on underwaters.

Dressel has seen steady improvement, and it won't take the stars aligning for him to touch the wall first at Trials. Dressel is without a doubt one of the best sprinters the United States has to offer. It is just taking some adjustment until the world knows.

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