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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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WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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