INDIANAPOLIS -- So much was unknown. When Caeleb Dressel climbed into his starting blocks for the 50m freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium, he teetered somewhere between lost and found, fighting a very public struggle to recapture success, and much more importantly, traction and happiness in his life.

Less than three years ago at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Dressel took a place among the most accomplished American swimmers in history. He won five gold medals in the showy sprints: the 50m and 100m freestyle and the 100m butterfly; and also swam 100m legs on two relays. He was tanned and tattooed and powerful, a beast in the most adoring use of the word -- and at just short of 25 years old, more medals seemed to lie ahead. His mindset back then, he would say Friday night, was, "How long can I dominate?"

A year later at the world championships in Budapest, Dressel won gold medals with the four-man U.S. team in the 4x100m freestyle relay and in the 50m freestyle. After a day off, he won his preliminary heat in the 100m freestyle, and then withdrew from the meet before the night's semifinals. He has never said specifically what led to that withdrawal, but what followed were nearly two years in which Dressel went into therapy, at one point went eight months without training, and then slowly in the last year and a half, came back to the sport and to himself.

These Trials, arduous under any circumstances, would challenge him in unforgiving ways. "This is a true test," he said. "A really big test."

On Wednesday night, Dressel swam the 100m free in 47.53 seconds, his fastest time in that event since Tokyo. But that performance was good for only third place behind Chris Guiliano (47.38) and Jack Alexy (47.47), both of whom are six years younger than Dressel, a generation in athletic terms. Only the top-two finishers earn places on the Olympic team, so Dressel was left with only a spot on the 4X100m free relay. But it was something. A glimmer.

Then came the 50m free. It took Dressel just 21.41 seconds to win the race and earn an individual place on the Olympic team, turning the aquamarine water into a foamy white, looking much like he had in his previous competitive life. Like a beast. So quickly and so suddenly, Dressel seemed back. But that is untrue. It was not fast. It was not sudden.

"It takes a lot of work," Dressel said to reporters after the race, his eyes misty, but his emotions very much under control. "There are parts of this meet, where I've had some very low lows. There are parts in my hotel that aren't on camera. Talking with my wife, talking with my therapist. It has not been smooth sailing."

He grinned. "I know y'all like getting to see that smile, and I'm working on it. I'm trying to find those moments, and really relish them." Working on himself in real time.

He widened his lens. "It's just been fun," he said. "I really feel like I'm loved in this sport, and it's really nice to feel that from the crowd. I'm not doing my best times. But when I'm walking out, not even performing yet, feeling the love from everyone, it's really special. I didn't think that was something that was really me... but it's been really nice being able to feel it now."

And one other thought. On Feb. 17, Dressel's wife, Meghan, gave birth to their first child, a boy they named August. After Dressel's 100m swim, photos were posted on Instagram where the Dressels together hugged August, as he wore headphones to protect his infant ears. Dressel said, "It's special for the rest of my life to say my son got to watch me make the Olympic team. Something nobody can ever take away from me."

What has resonated about Dressel's week here is that despite his uncertainties and struggles, he has seemingly improved with each race, virtually racing himself back in time to 2021 on the scoreboard if not on the calendar. "I didn't make it individually in the 100 free," Dressel said. "But I've come a long way in the last year, time-wise. I just couldn't find enough time in that race. But I got beat in one of the fastest heats we've ever seen in our sport." Also this: "We're gonna get faster, too."

And in clawing his way back to comfort and speed, Dressel said he's also learned about what it means to be an elder statesman of sorts. He thought back to Nathan Adrian, a sprinter a generation older than Dressel who won five Olympic golds and eight medals overall from 2008-'16. "I remember the first time I met Adrian," said Dressel. "I thought I was supposed to hate the guy, and he was so nice to me. I was like, oh, this is what swimming is all about. So, for me, it's about showing the younger generation what they're capable of."


Not yet.

Thirty-four minutes after Dressel's 50m free victory, he won his semifinal heat of the 100m butterfly, another of the events in which he won a gold medal in Tokyo. He touched in 50.79 seconds, fastest by .32-seconds among the eight men who will contest the final . He will be favored to win the race, and earn a second individual spot. "Got one more," Dressel said. "Not even one more day. I got one more session. I think the confidence is definitely growing."

That much is no longer unknown.