Caeleb Dressel tossed the stuffed bear into the crowd and handed his victor’s medal to a fan at the recent U.S. Swimming Championships, but the blue and black bandana with cows stayed wrapped tight around his left hand.
“There’s no worldly possession that means more to me than that bandana,” Dressel said earlier this year. “I smell it. I kiss it. I don’t care. I sleep with it next to my head every night.”
Last summer, Dressel won a Michael Phelps-record-tying seven gold medals at the world championships, pushing the then-20-year-old into part of the void left by Phelps’ retirement after the Rio Olympics. Dressel swims at this year’s biggest meet, the Pan Pacific Championships, later this week.
Dressel was handed the bandana last fall, four months after his seven-gold performance.
It belonged to Claire McCool, one of Dressel’s math teachers at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs, Fla., about halfway between Jacksonville and where Dressel matriculated, the University of Florida. McCool died on Nov. 20 at age 62, a little more than two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Claire had several bandanas she used for working out,” said McCool’s husband of 40 years, Mike. “I gave each of our [three] daughters one. I wanted Caeleb to have something of Claire’s, and I thought that would be appropriate the day of the [memorial] service. I figured there would be a lot of tears shed, and I wanted him to have something of Claire’s.”
Dressel called McCool his “life teacher.”
“They bonded like no other student and teacher at Clay High,” said Dressel’s younger sister, Sherridon, who swims for UF. “You could just tell she really, genuinely cared about each of her students. Not [just] how they did academically — obviously she was a great teacher — she provided support, encouragement in every aspect of life. I think Caeleb really needed that at points in his own life and just having that person to talk to and trust and just share that bond.”
In Dressel’s final high school semester in particular. From December 2013 to May 2014, the nation’s top-ranked swim recruit took a leave from the sport.
“I just needed a little mental break,” Dressel said in a lengthy sitdown in Gainesville in 2015, carefully choosing his words. “I had some demons I was fighting at that point.”
He confided in McCool.
“To know that he trusts me with secrets and the way he felt,” she said, according to WUFT TV in Gainesville in 2016. “It’s just something that is so special to me and is almost sacred.”
McCool was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, prompting a public display from the at times guarded swimmer in his sophomore season at Florida. McCool continued to teach in between chemotherapy sessions.
At the time Dressel was known for putting Bible verses on his cheeks at meets. For the February 2016 SEC Championships, Dressel replaced Isaiah 40:31 and wrote “McCool” on his right cheek. He drew a pink ribbon on the left. He broke his first American record in the 50-yard freestyle.
Dressel went on to make the Rio Olympic team four months later.
At 19 years old, Dressel had arguably the most pressure-packed duty of the Olympic swimming competition, leading off the U.S. quartet in the storied 4x100m freestyle relay. He lowered his 100m free personal best by .13 on his leg, sending the Americans off to an eventual gold medal over the rival French.
McCool, who was too ill to attend the Olympic Trials, watched from Florida.
“Just like any mother, she just thought the world of Caeleb and was excited every time he swam,” her husband said.
Dressel and his family visited McCool often in late 2017. In her last days at her house. Then while she was under hospice care.
“I saw her on her deathbed,” Dressel said earlier this year. “She was still the strongest woman I’ve ever seen.”
The bandana became a story at the NCAA Championships in March. Dressel walks onto the pool deck, holding it between his lips. He clutches it as he prays before mounting the starting block.
Then he lowered his American record in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles and the 100-yard butterfly in his last college meet before signing with Speedo.
“She’s with me every race, and she will be until I finish my career,” Dressel said. “You can get used to the cow bandana for a while.”
One can imagine Dressel’s alarm, then, when he lost the bandana after his last race at nationals two weeks ago.
Dressel, who had deleted social media apps from his phone for the meet, reloaded Twitter and posted at 11:01 p.m., “I can’t find my bandana, has anybody seen it? I may have left it at the pool,” tagging USA Swimming and the two biggest swimming media outlets, Swimming World and Swimswam.com.
Dressel tweeted an update 14 minutes later. “I found it, it was with my caps,” with a hugging face emoji. The averted crisis came as news to Mike McCool, who was told about it this week.
“When you see [Dressel] go to the start line, he’s always got it with him,” he said. “It always means a lot to us. I’m sure it means a lot to him.”
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