Caeleb Dressel, the seven-time Olympic swimming gold medalist launching a comeback after months away from the pool, came up short Saturday in his final chance to make the US World Championships team.

Dressel, who pulled out of last year’s World Championships in Budapest citing unspecified medical concerns and took an extended break from training, finished tied for 22nd in the 50m freestyle heats at the US championships in Indianapolis, 1.07sec behind pace-setter Ryan Held. Dressel’s coach, Anthony Nesty, said the swimmer’s results were about what they expected after his time off and, most importantly, he’s enjoying the sport again. “Mentally, he’s right where he needs to be,” Nesty said in comments reported by Swimming World magazine. “He’s happy, first time I’ve seen him happy swimming in a long time. A happy athlete is a fast athlete. Obviously, he’s not fast yet, but under the circumstances, where he’s at, he did post some fast times.”

Dressel, who returned to competition at a low-key meet in Atlanta last month, can now turn his attention to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Dressel’s best performance in four events this week was a third place in the 50m butterfly. He tied for fifth in the 100m fly and failed to make the championship final in the 100m freestyle. Dressel won the 50m and 100m free along with the 100m fly and two relay gold medals at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics. By then, he had already stamped himself the face of US men’s swimming with his seven-gold haul at the 2017 World Championships. That made him the first swimmer since Michael Phelps to win seven golds at a World Championships, and Dressel won six golds and two relay silvers at the 2019 Worlds in South Korea.

“Happy without swimming”

But Dressel opened up in an interview with Graham Bensinger about the anxiety that had long accompanied his accomplishments in the sport. In a social media post last September, he said he was “happy without swimming” but still planning a return.

While Dressel didn’t talk to reporters in Indianapolis, US freestyle great Katie Ledecky, who trains with him under Nesty in Florida, said he was inspiring his teammates every day. “I think we’re all just really happy that he’s here and competing,” Ledecky said this week. “There’s so much that you all don’t see on a day-to-day basis of the joy that he brings to the pool deck every day and the impact that he has on his teammates. When he came back, it was a different atmosphere in Gainesville.”