Tokyo — At an Olympics where some of America's biggest stars have faltered, Caeleb Dressel lived up to the hype.
Dressel claimed the first individual Olympic gold medal of his career with two furious laps of the pool Thursday morning, winning the 100-meter freestyle over defending champion Kyle Chalmers.
Katie Ledecky got another shot at Ariarne Titmus, but this time neither won gold. China knocked off both the Americans and the Australians with a world-record performance in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay.
All three teams went faster than the previous mark, but it was China that earned the second world record of these games despite a blistering anchor leg from Ledecky.
As is his style, Dressel dove into the pool and came up with the lead. He was still ahead at the lone flip, and turned away the Aussie's bid for a second straight gold.
"It means a lot," Dressel said. "I knew that weight was on my shoulders."
Dressel's winning time was an Olympic record of 47.02 seconds - a mere six-hundredths of a second ahead of Chalmers, who had to settle for a silver at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
Dressel put things in perspective in an interview afterwards:
"I wasn't worried about anything," Dressel said. "During the race there's only so much you can do. Whatever's going to happen is going to happen. I stuck to my race plan so if it got me first, OK, if it got me second, OK."
The first three gold medals of Dressel's career were all in the relays - two in Rio de Janeiro, another in the 4x100 free relay at the Tokyo Games.
Now, Dressel has earned a gold all by himself.
"It is a lot different. I guess I thought it would be, I just didn't want to admit to it," he said. "It's a lot tougher. You have to rely on yourself, there's no one to bail you out from a bad split."
Dressel climbed atop the lane rope, a look of wonder on his face, and held up the index finger on each hand.
No. 1 indeed.
Dressel's gold was the second of the morning for the Americans, who got a surprise victory from Bobby Finke in the Olympic debut of the men's 800 free.
After Michael Phelps retired, Dressel emerged as the world's dominant swimmer.
He turned in staggering performances at the last two world championships, earning seven gold medals at Budapest in 2017, followed by a six-gold, two-silver performance at Gwangju in 2019.
As important as those meets were, they're not the Olympics.
He needed an individual gold to solidify his legacy.