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Caeleb Dressel gives away his swimming medals, keeps bandana

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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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Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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LAS VEGAS — In Las Vegas on Friday, an elegant Nathan Chen performed a romantic short program to Charles Aznavour’s “La Boheme,” earning 102.71 points and a 6.14-point lead at Skate America.

When the two-time world champion takes the ice for his free skate on Saturday, he’ll pop and lock to music from the Elton John biopic Rocketman — for the last 30 seconds or so of the program, he’ll be a hip hop dancer on skates.

After choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil presented Chen with the idea, it took him a while, or at least a couple of minutes, to get used to it.

“Originally, she just said Rocketman and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Chen said. “Then she threw in the hip hop. I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She didn’t tell me until I got there and she played the music.”

“I figured it would be fine,” he added. “My issue was telling [coach] Raf [Arutunian]. I didn’t tell him until I got back to California, but when I did tell him he was actually totally on board with it.”

Whatever concerns the coach may have had vanished when Chen showed him the steps, created with Dubreuil’s collaborator Samuel Chouinard.

“First of all, it looks like it’s professionally done and he executes it professionally,” Arutunian said. “I was watching ice dance last year and many of couples (were) doing hip hop dancing, and I think he would be one of the best at it. If you do something, you should do well, and he is doing it so professionally, you cannot feel he has blades on. He manipulates his feet like he is in shoes.”

This isn’t exactly Chen’s first try at hip hop. He touched on it last season in his “Land of All” free skate, also created with Dubreuil and Chouinard.

“I was actually pretty cool with it because I worked with Sam last year. We did a tiny bit of hip hop to incorporate (into the program), it wasn’t truly hip hop,” Chen said. “I knew that’s (Sam’s) specialty, that’s what he’s great at, and I figured it would be fine.”

Chouinard, a Montreal-based choreographer and dancer, has created hip hop programs for other skaters, including Canada’s two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Many ice dancers incorporated hip hop into their short dances for the 2016-2017 season. But as Chen notes, trying it in men’s singles competition is a different story.

“I did consider that,” he admitted. “I haven’t seen much of this. I know (U.S. skater) Philip Warren has done something like it this year and other kids have, and of course dancers did it. It wasn’t something that is never done, but rarely do you see it with the top six guys (in the world).”

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

Chen has to be encouraged by the reaction of spectators at his practices here, who screamed and clapped when the skater busted his moves.

“It’s a judged sport and the way the audience reacts to the program has some influence on how the judges interpret your performance,” he said. “I think we don’t want to stick to one demographic in terms of the fan base, the audience. It’s nice to incorporate everything. It’s cool to see all the guys competing have completely different styles, so each program new, unique and fresh.”

Now a sophomore at Yale University, Chen’s balancing act between studies as a Statistics and Data Science major and elite figure skater competitor, is getting a bit trickier.

“Homework is time consuming, each homework assignment takes six to 12 hours to finish and I have a couple per week, so that’s a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly exam times that are really challenging, right now is a little bit easier time for me at school. Obviously it’s going to pick up. It’s tough, but as much as I’m in the situation, I just have to manage as best I can.”

Fortunately, Skate America takes place during an academic break. Japan Open earlier this month was another story; the trip caused him to miss a midterm exam, which he later made up.

“Competition after competition keeps me motivated, knowing I have to achieve a certain goal at each competition,” Chen said. “That’s what drives me through practices.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Nathan Chen holds commanding lead over Skate America men’s field

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Nathan Chen is on his way to winning his third Skate America title this weekend in Las Vegas to open the 2019-20 Grand Prix season. The two-time world champion hasn’t lost a Grand Prix event since his silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in 2016, and is about to make that list longer.

(In case you were wondering, Todd Eldredge has the most Skate America wins from the ’90s, with five.)

Chen, a sophomore at Yale University, scored 102.71 points in Friday’s short program and was the only man to break the 100-point barrier. Chen opened his short program, set to “La Boheme,” with a quadruple Lutz, followed by a triple Axel and a quad toe-triple toe combination.

Skate America results are here.

“I’m not entirely happy with how the program went, however, since this is the first outing, I’m pretty okay with how things went,” Chen said through U.S. Figure Skating. “I’m looking forward to competing tomorrow and hopefully cleaning up some of the mistakes I made today and keep moving forward.”

Russia’s Dmitry Aliev is in second place heading into Saturday’s free skate, trailing Chen at 96.57 points. His short program also included a quad Lutz and a quad toe. Canada’s Keegan Messing notched a personal best short program score with 96.34 points and is in third place.

2014 Olympian Jason Brown finds himself in fourth place with 83.45 points. Brown popped his triple Axel attempt into a single, which received zero points.

“It was a lapse of focus in the moment,” Brown said of his Axel attempt. “I should not have missed it; I have not missed one all week. I’m very irritated with myself. In the moment, you have to try not to relive it. Whether I was trying to stay relaxed about it or whether I was trying to attack it, I can’t remember. But I remember a moment of something right before [it happened]. I just said, ‘Don’t show emotion, just keep going.’ I think my experience definitely serves me well when it comes to making mistakes and having to pick back up like nothing happened. But that irritation doesn’t go away.”

The third American man in the field, Alex Krasnozhon, is in 10th place with 72.30 points.

MORE: How to watch Skate America

China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, fourth at worlds last year, took a slim lead in the pairs’ short program earlier Friday. They told a 1.48 point lead over Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin, who sit in second place.

U.S. reigning national champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are third with 68.20 points. The other two American teams in the field, Haven Denney and Brandon Frasier and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, are fourth and fifth, respectively.

“We’re building toward the world championships, and we’ve been very outspoken about our goal to be in the top five at worlds,” LeDuc said through U.S. Figure Skating. “Salt Lake was the first step, this is another. We’re building, and I think we’re really right on track for what we want. To have a big mistake in the program and still have a 68 is really awesome. We’re in a good place and excited to go into the free skate as well.”

Skate America continues Friday with the rhythm dance and ladies’ short programs, followed by the free skates in all disciplines on Saturday from Las Vegas. All of it can be seen live with the NBC Sports Gold “Figure Skating Pass,” which is offering a free trial for Skate America.

MORE: Nathan Chen calls 3 quads at Skate America ‘a given’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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