Bandanna, Kids and the Down-to-Earth Caeleb Dressel

Photo Courtesy: Dan D'Addona

Morning Splash by David Rieder.

At the NCAA championships, Florida coach Gregg Troy had a story to tell about Caeleb Dressel. The story wasn’t about any of his American records or crazy heroics in the pool. It didn’t even have anything to do with any of Dressel’s swimming.

In the pool, of course, Dressel has been somewhat of a viral sensation this week, earning rousing ovations in Minneapolis and plenty of gawking from fans around the country. That’s Dressel, but it’s not the entire story behind the man Troy has gotten to know over the past four years.

“Everyone wants to talk about Caeleb’s performances,” Troy said. “Some of the things they miss is, his work ethic is amazing. He’s coming back from every success and taken everything up a level, whether it’s the volume, the intensity, what we’re looking at. But more than anything, what he brings to the table is the person.”

Who is Dressel the person? Someone who won’t forget from where he came and someone who will do all he can to honor those who have meant something to him. All week, he has draped his head in a blue bandanna before his races—a bandanna that carries special meaning because of its previous owner: one of his high school teachers, Claire McCool, who died of cancer in November.

“It’s Ms. McCool’s bandanna,” Dressel said. “It was given to me as a gift from her husband. She wore it when she had chemo. It’s the most important thing in my life for a physical object. It’s just nice to carry her behind the blocks in a physical form. She’s with me every race, and it will be until I finish my career. You can get used to that bandanna for a while.”

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Dressel with Claire McCool’s bandanna — Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

Actions reveal character, and the story Troy had in mind was something simple yet powerful. The scene took place at this season’s SEC championships, minutes after the Gator men and their coaches had taken the celebratory plunge to recognize their sixth straight conference title.

After he dried himself off, Troy walked down a mostly-empty pool deck towards the Florida team section. He spotted three of his swimmers and the world’s best male swimmer leading them in what some would consider a menial task.

“There’s three of our guys down there, with Caeleb leading them and participating, cleaning up the team area and taking everything out,” Troy said. “That type of thing doesn’t happen in today’s world with athletes at that level very often.”

Troy brought up the 100 fly final at NCAAs, when Dressel’s face lit up not at the sight of his new American and NCAA record but at the sight of the “2” next to the name of Jan Switkowski, his Florida teammate and roommate.

“I didn’t care about my time at that point. I looked to see what I got, and I forgot what lane Jan was in. I was looking for Switkowski, and I saw it, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Dressel said. “He’s a dirty dog.”

At the end of the meet’s final prelims session, Dressel swam on Florida’s 4×100 free relay team with two of his teammates that wouldn’t be on the evening relay, Christoph Margotti and Maxime Rooney. Troy explained that Dressel was engaged with that foursome and congratulated them on their swims.

Yes, that’s what you would expect from a good teammate—but sometimes the best swimmers in the world aren’t always the best teammates, the most respected of their peers. Dressel is just another one of the guys.

“I think the thing that’s pretty unique, we’ve tried to treat him like he’s everyone else on the team, and he handles it exactly that way,” Troy said.

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Dressel with Jan Switkowski at the NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Earlier in the meet, Dressel was waiting behind the blocks before he would swim the breaststroke leg on Florida’s 4×100 medley relay. Only minutes remained before his team of Gators would get in the pool, but Dressel wasn’t in a laser-focused mood, so he joked around with a few of the children volunteering on deck.

“I think the only moment I really need is when I’m up on the actual block. What is five minutes before the meet going to do for me besides get nervous. I met some new friends, met some 5-year-olds—I don’t know how old they are, super young, super adorable, too,” Dressel said. “Super cool kids. They kept me calm. Nice to meet them.”

To Dressel, no big deal. For those kids, chatting with the meet’s superstar meant the world. But before Caeleb Dressel was elite in the pool, he was a goofy, respectful, humble and unassuming young man—and he still is.

“My main goal in life isn’t just to be the best swimmer I can be,” Dressel said. “I just want to be a better man every day, and from there, the swimming will come.”

If you need more proof of Dressel’s priorities, keep an eye on him next time he races. You will probably notice one particular blue bandanna.

13 Comments

13 comments

  1. Michelle Pritchard

    He’s always so great with the kids. They couldn’t have a better role model.

  2. Rikayla Redding

    We had the privilege of meeting Caeleb Dressel at the Swim Trials in Omaha a couple summers ago. He was the nicest athlete we met in the week we spent there. He stopped for every single autograph that was asked of him, making his way through crowds of kids excited to see him, making sure to be personable and chat with everyone. He never disappointed a single kid, making time for everyone. A great swimmer, and more importantly and fantastic personality! Can’t wait to see what he does in 2020!

  3. Linda Engledow

    Awesome! This sad world needs more kind hearted athletes for our kids to respect and look up to. Sweet man. Hope his career continues to ROCK!

  4. avatar
    Ramona Villa

    Not trying to take his glory, cause he is the best. But his whole family is the same way.

  5. Pat Kennedy

    An all around phenomenal young man!!!

  6. avatar
    Swan Hunter

    At the recent NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, Caeleb gave each of his trophies to one of the children volunteers who were helping at the meet. This absolutely pegs the meter of class and generosity. What a role model. Hats off to you, Caeleb Dressel.

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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