By Jordan McPherson
Before most of his races, University of Florida swimmer Caeleb Dressel writes a Bible verse on his face.
A common one is Isaiah 40:31.
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength,” the verse reads. “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
But during his 50-yard freestyle race at the Southeastern Conference Championships in March that catapulted him into the national spotlight, he needed just one word written in eye black to give him the strength and faith he needed throughout the race: McCool.
Claire McCool, a math teacher at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs who was diagnosed with breast cancer in late September, has been one of Caeleb’s biggest supporters.
He’s also been one of hers.
She was his math teacher during his freshman and senior years of high school and has always been there to give him encouragement whenever he needs it.
“She’s a big inspiration for me,” Caeleb said to reporters after winning the event in an American record 18.23 seconds, a record he would break again a month later at the NCAA Championships. “She’s helped me through a lot of life situations. A life teacher, basically.”
Now, the 19-year-old UF sophomore is eyeing the next step of his swimming career: A chance to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
To get there, he’ll need to qualify at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, from June 26-July 3.
As he prepares for that opportunity, Caeleb continues to look to his former teacher for inspiration, just as he has throughout his swimming career.
“She is his mom away from home,” said Christina Dressel, Caeleb’s mother. “She just gives great advice, [there is] very much wisdom about her.”
The first time Caeleb walked into Claire McCool’s classroom for geometry class his freshman year, McCool knew something was different about him.
“His ability, even as a freshman, to look you in the eye when he talks to you, not a lot of freshmen do that,” McCool said. “It was genuine.”
Throughout his four years at Clay High, Caeleb turned to McCool for advice whenever he needed it.
Their bond was truly forged during Caeleb’s senior year.
After undergoing surgery for a deviated septum and missing six months in the pool, Caeleb sought out McCool for help.
He would talk with her during his P.E. class, the same time of the day she had her planning period.
McCool took the time to listen.
“To know that he trusts me with secrets and the way he felt,” McCool said, “it’s just something that is so special to me and is almost sacred.”
The feeling has been reciprocated, the most publicly by writing her last name on his face during the SEC Championships.
McCool didn’t know Caeleb planned to race in her honor that week.
When Christina called McCool and told her the news, they both cried.
“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 said. “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.”
He’s been in her corner a lot more than usual lately since McCool’s breast cancer diagnosis.
Over the past seven months, McCool has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy, teaching classes on a reduced schedule in order to give her time to recover.
She had her final surgery on April 8.
And one small gesture – six letters underneath the right eye of a 19-year-old – gave McCool a reason to keep fighting.
“I have a purpose. I have hope now,” Christina remembers McCool telling her. “I have something to live for.”
Christina Dressel saw the potential early.
Caeleb was 5 years old and competing in a meet hosted by the River City Swim League in Jacksonville.
He swam laps around the competition… literally.
After a few competitions over the years, people began taking notice.
“Man, this guy’s got a natural talent,” Christina Dressel remembers one person telling her.
“He’s got a nice feeling for the water,” another coach would say.
Christina Dressel thought they were just being nice, helping instill confidence in a youngster who enjoyed spending time in the water.
Then the accolades started rolling in.
First place in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2014 USA Swimming Speedo Junior National Championships.
Top honors in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships.
Six medals at the 2013 FINA World Junior National Championships, highlighted by a gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
“Each meet, he would get better,” Christina said. “He wouldn’t just go to the big races. He’d win.”
Caeleb lines up on his block at Lane 4 inside Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center on Day 2 of the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
As the horn sounds, Caeleb and seven of the best collegiate freestyle swimmers dive into the 25-yard-long pool with one goal in mind: Make it to one end of the pool and back faster than everyone else.
It sounds like a simple task, but when Caeleb is in the competition, nothing is simple.
Caeleb darts out to an early lead, and as he shreds through the water coming down the home stretch, Caeleb only gets faster.
He touches the wall a full stride before his nearest competitor and immediately scans the scoreboard.
As the results appear, he slams his fists in the water in excitement.
18.20 seconds, the fastest 50-yard swim to be recorded, bettering his already unheard-of standard.
Two days later, Caeleb continued to reset records, tallying a world-best time of 40.46 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle.
“The performance itself wasn’t surprising,” UF swimming and diving coach Gregg Troy said. “It’s one of those things that we planned on all year. We’ve seen those things from him in practice. I think I might be a little more surprised by the consistency of how many times he did it.”
And now, Dressel looks to do it again.
But this time, a place in the Olympics is on the line.
As of press time, more than 1,660 have qualified to compete in the Olympic Trials. In the two individual events Caeleb is qualified for — the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle — there are 171 swimmers and 105 swimmers qualified, respectively. Only 52 swimmers overall — 26 men, 26 women — will advance to Rio De Janiero to represent the United States.
“It’s just been a goal of his for so long,” Caeleb’s mother said. “To see the baby steps, all those dreams come true for this last big goal to possibly come true is just incredible.”
As Caeleb prepares for that final step in reaching his goal, he will look to McCool for strength along the way, just as he has over the last six years.
McCool will do the same.
“He’s just a real kind of guy,” McCool said. “He’s just Caeleb.”