You won’t have to watch Caeleb Dressel, America’s great post-Phelps swimming hope, for very long before you’ll catch sight of a deep blue bandanna in his hands. He clutches it immediately prior to meets, and then, once he’s posted an almost-inevitable victory, he ties it around his medal’s ribbon. Blue, dotted with cows, it’s a constant presence at every pool where Dressel swims, including standing atop the medal podium Thursday.
Dressel won the men’s 100-meter freestyle, claiming his first Olympic gold. Standing on the podium, right arm over his heart, Dressel clutched that blue bandanna in his left had as tears flowed down his masked face.
Many athletes have totems, charms, superstitious objects they use to steady themselves and prepare for the biggest moments of their lives. But for Dressel, the bandanna is a symbol of much more: how far he’s come, and how much one person helped him get here.
The bandanna belonged to Claire McCool, Dressel’s high school math teacher, who died of breast cancer in 2017 at age 62. Those are the facts. They don’t come close to telling the whole story.
By the time Dressel walked into McCool’s freshman geometry class at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs, Florida, he was already an accomplished swimmer … and he was already feeling the pressure of expectations. Three years later, when Dressel decided to take a substantial break from swimming, McCool was there for him as mentor and sounding board.
“I don’t regret taking time off at all. It was really hard getting back into shape, back into the groove,” he told Yahoo Sports a few months back. “I needed the mental break … I was a 17-year-old kid, a top recruit coming out of high school, a lot of talk around me about expectation. I wasn’t used to that. I was like any high schooler, trying to figure out my life … Who knows where I’d be if I didn’t take that break?”
Once he returned to the pool and worked his way up to the pinnacle, Dressel paid tribute to McCool in the best way he knew how.
The tattoos that run along Dressel’s left arm and shoulder are a tribute to his Florida heritage; the meaning of the Olympic rings encircling his right forearm is obvious. Before meets, he often writes Bible verses on his cheek like Isaiah 40:31. (“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”)
But during a 50-yard freestyle race at the 2016 SEC championships, the race that would vault him into the national spotlight and, soon afterward, onto the Olympic team, Dressel wrote just one word on his cheek: MCCOOL.
“I had never felt that level of support and just to know that you mean that much to another human, another person, especially someone that’s not in your family,” McCool told WUFT after that race, about 18 months before her death. “I keep going back to the word humbled. I’m just so humbled by it all and so appreciative that I’ve got him in my corner.”
She watched as Dressel established his dominance, winning two golds in Rio and then an astounding seven golds in the 2017 worlds in Budapest. Soon after that, though, she succumbed to cancer. Her husband Mike presented Caeleb with one of her workout bandannas, and he’s kept it with him ever since.
He doesn’t talk much about McCool; it’s a personal matter for him, not one to be processed and chewed into an Olympic feel-good tale. But it’s clear from how often and how close he holds the bandanna that her presence is never far from his mind.
“The bandanna is very significant,” he says. “It’s a piece of her that I’m always going to have, one physical piece that I have left of her.”
If he delivers the way he’s expected to, that well-traveled bandanna is headed for another podium.
More from Yahoo Sports: