Caeleb Dressel failed to qualify for the biggest swim meet of the year. Simone Manuel didn’t even try.
Adam Peaty is taking an extended break to deal with mental health issues. Kristóf Milák decided he was in no shape — mentally or physically — to compete this summer.
Some of the world’s greatest swimmers are missing the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, as they deal with burnout and the enormous toll the sport takes on their bodies and minds.
“It’s hard to see when people go down with mental health and are not happy with themselves,” English swimmer James Guy said. “It’s just a brutal sport.”
Dressel, who won five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, walked away in the middle of last summer’s worlds in Budapest, Hungary. The 26-year-old Floridian was overwhelmed by the pressure and stress, forcing him to take an extended break.
“The easiest way to put it is my body kept score. A lot of things I had shut down, and it all came boiling up,” Dressel said recently at the U.S. national championships. “It wasn’t just one thing where I was like, ‘I think I need to step away.’ It was a bunch of things that kind of came crumbling down at once. And I knew that was my red flag right there. Multiple red flags. It was a giant red flag.”
Dressel only returned to training in late February. That didn’t leave him nearly enough time to get up to speed for the U.S. nationals, which served as the trials for the world championships.
Dressel failed to finish higher than third in any of his events, a stunning drop from where he was just two years ago in Tokyo.
Manuel, whose groundbreaking career includes five Olympic medals and a pair of golds, stepped away from the sport after Tokyo to deal with burnout.
The American star knew she was in no condition to compete for a spot on the powerful U.S. team at this year’s worlds. Having moved to Arizona to work under coach Bob Bowman, her focus is solely on being ready for the Paris Games in 2024.
“This year has been full of new challenges for me,” Manuel wrote on her Instagram account. “Quite frankly, it’s really not as simple as it may seem. There were a lot of steps, precautions, and patience to get my body back to normalcy and adjusting to a new training environment. I can confidently say that I’ve made great progress this year. I remember what I couldn’t do, not too long ago.”
Peaty, the world’s most dominant men’s breaststroker, struggled with depression and alcohol abuse after an unprecedented run of success — and expectations — that stretched over nearly a decade.
He called it “an incredibly, incredibly lonely journey.”
“No one will ever understand how lonely it is to be at the top of the sport and continually be there because you’ve got to say no to so many things, including many things that make you happy,” the 28-year-old English standout told swimming journalist Craig Lord for a revealing story published in The Times of London.
“Honestly, I’ve been on a self-destructive spiral, which I don’t mind saying because I’m human. By saying it, I can start to find the answers.”
Milák sounded a similar tone when he decided to sit out the world championships. The Hungarian who shattered Michael Phelps’ decade-old record in the 200-meter butterfly and claimed Olympic gold in that event at Tokyo was simply in no shape to compete against the world’s top swimmers.
“I’m still trying to find a satisfying answer why this had to happen,” Milák said in a statement issued through the Hungarian swimming federation. “I’ve hit rock-bottom, but I have to emphasize that this does not come with any worries from my side. I’ve accepted this, and I honestly hope that everyone else can also do that — to see that any athlete can face a period like this in his career, when you need to step back, recharge the batteries in order to be ready for the next challenges.”
The absence of some of the biggest stars has cast a pall over the world championships, but it’s also making everyone more cognizant of the need to listen to the bodies and their minds.
If the quest for gold becomes too overwhelming, it’s probably time to take a break.
“It’s sort of a year-round sport,” Siobhán Haughey of Hong Kong said. “You don’t really have seasons because you have long courses and then short-course season and then whatever meets your country participates in. So it is very grueling on your body and mentally and physically. I think these athletes coming out and saying like, ‘You know, maybe we should be paying more attention to mental health,’ I think that’s a good thing.”
The training required to reach the top of the sport can be downright brutal. Up to six hours of practice each day, often for weeks without a day off. For some, the quest for perfection becomes so consuming, they can take no more.
Manuel learned that lesson the hard way leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. She kept training more and more, only to find her times getting slower and slower. Finally, she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, which made it a struggle simply to qualify for the Summer Games.
“This is definitely a topic that we should be talking more about and see if there’s a better way to prevent athletes from getting to a point where they burn out,” Haughey said.
Dressel, Manuel, Peaty and Milák are all hoping to be at the Paris Olympics.
But, in a way, they’ve already scored major victories for their personal happiness.
“Don’t be afraid,” Milák said. “I’ll be back soon!”