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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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The Meaning Behind Caeleb Dressel's Bandana

"There's no worldly possession that means more to me than that bandana. She's with me every race."Caeleb Dressel has had a big reason to swim fast this week. 💙 Hear more about why this 🐄 bandana means so much to him ⬇️#GoGators

Posted by Florida Gators Swimming & Diving on Saturday, March 24, 2018

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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