GAMES ON!
Men's Journal|May - June 2021
Maybe it’s the one-year delay. Maybe it’s the global pandemic that caused that delay and lends these Olympics more significance than any in recent memory. Or perhaps it’s the fresh energy of new events. Regardless, now—finally—is the time to learn about the athletes and sports the whole world will soon be watching.
CHARLES COXE AND GORDY MEGROZ

GOLD STANDARD

CAELEB DRESSEL

HOMETOWN: Green Cove Springs, FL EVENT: Swimming

Michael Phelps is a tough act to follow, but Caeleb Dressel has fairly earned comparisons to the retired GSOAT (greatest swimmer of all time). While Phelps was soaking up the media glare, the decade younger Dressel was quietly carving his own place in the U.S. record books.

In 2012, he became the first swimmer younger than 16 to beat 20 seconds in the 200-yard freestyle relay, then broke a 100-yard freestyle under-16 record that had stood for 22 years. After bringing two relay golds home from Rio in 2016, he has only gotten faster. At the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, he won eight medals, and—gasp!—broke Phelps’ record in the 100-meter butterfly.

Unlike many top swimmers, Dressel wasn’t born in the water, playing football as a kid until he switched his focus to swimming. Even after taking a six-month break in high school, he was recruited by the storied swimming program at the University of Florida. Since 2019, he has been a marquee attraction in the splashy new International Swimming League, and broke world records in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter individual medley. Maybe the most valuable Olympics training came from a two-hour window during which he swam in five races, demonstrating crazy recovery ability. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had swimming in my life,” he said of the experience.

So, yes, he’s a legit gold-medal contender in seven events, provoking speculation over whether he could pull off the impossible and surpass Phelps’ eight golds in a single Olympics. “That’s not why I’m in this sport,” Dressel has politely protested. “It’s not to beat Michael.” But he could be facing a challenge leftover from the Phelps era. Ryan Lochte, defying nature at 36, actually beat Dressel in the 200-meter individual medley in early March in San Antonio. Maybe Dressel’s head wasn’t in the pool, having just wed his high school swim club sweetheart.

We suspect he’ll wash away any cobwebs in time for Tokyo. For as Dressel himself has said, “The good thing about true perseverance is that it can’t be stopped by anything besides death.”

SPOTLIGHT EVENT

Basketball Perhaps you’ve heard of these guys?

THE MEN’S BASKETBALL tournament is a foregone conclusion, right? America’s Dream Team, comprising NBA giants including LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant, will dominate to gold-medal victory. Not so fast. As basketball becomes more international, Spain, Serbia, France, and Australia are all fielding squads that pose at least a threat to America’s on-court supremacy.

Many have forgotten that 2004’s Team USA—a team that both King James and 15-time NBA All-Star Tim Duncan played on—was only able to scrape up bronze. (Gold went to Argentina!) And two years ago, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, the Americans were ejected by France in the quarterfinals.

In Tokyo, more than 25 percent of all competitors will be NBA players, and guys like Rudy Gobert, a 7'1 center from France who plays for the Utah Jazz and is considered the best defender in the world, as well as Spain’s Gasol brothers, both of whom have played on teams that have won NBA titles, could send Team USA home early. Then, again, it’s not like the Dream Team is an underdog.

If they do go down, though, basketball fans can still root for America’s 3x3 team. Added for these Olympics, the half-court game features teams of three playing with smaller balls and a relentless 12-second shot clock. So, yeah, it’s a blast, even without superstar names.

GOLD STANDARD

NEVIN HARRISON

HOMETOWN: Seattle EVENT: Sprint Canoe

How does Nevin Harrison feel about packing her bags for Tokyo? “I’m really scared,” she readily admits. “The Olympics are such a big deal.” The 19-year-old has cause for some pre-Games jitters: The U.S. has never won gold in sprint canoe, a compellingly watchable event in which solo racers kneel in sleek, improbably skinny canoes and paddle as if being chased by rabid alligators. (Then, again, women have never before even been allowed to compete in the event, despite handling kayaks since 1948.) Plus, she managed to compete exactly one time during the international crapstorm that was 2020. “I’m worried about how much I’ve improved in my training—I know all the other athletes have improved,” she says.

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