JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - For 12 days in South Korea, the only contact Mike and Christina Dressel had with their 22-year-old son, Caeleb, was either by text or waving at him from up in the stands at the FINA World Championships.
There were no getaway dinners, no lengthy conversations or FaceTime exchanges. Athletes rarely have time to themselves except for sleeping in the middle of a high-stakes international competition.
Caeleb, the superstar swimmer from Clay High School in Green Cove Springs, who is on a fast track to becoming America's next Michael Phelps, finally got to see his parents for about 15 minutes Sunday night. It came after he completed a record haul of eight medals by earning silver in the 4 X 100-meter medley relay, and it morphed into a tear-jerker.
When Mom and Dad, along with Caeleb's girlfriend, Meghan Haila, finally got to see him up close in a sequestered room with other U.S. swimmers and their families, it became a total group hug and emotional breakdown.
Everybody was bawling, and not so much from the joy of Caeleb bringing home six gold medals, two silvers and also breaking the world record in the 100-meter butterfly (49.50 seconds).
"It was an emotional cry for all of us, and it's not because Caeleb is sad," Christina told the Times-Union in a phone interview from South Korea. "It's just the relief of it being over."
The same thing happened two years ago after the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, when Dressel captured seven gold medals, and also in 2016 at the Olympics in Brazil, where Caeleb won two relay gold medals.
But unlike past international events, when Caeleb's celebrity status was still in its infancy, the University of Florida swimmer is a much bigger deal now. The people in his inner circle got a taste of how much his profile elevated in Gwangju, South Korea.
"Random people are coming up and saying, 'Are you Caeleb's parents?' and wanting pictures taken with us going into the (swimming) venue," Mike said. "In one picture, Meghan was given a baby to hold.
"It's just different. Between the post-race warmdowns and drug tests, Caeleb wasn't getting out of there some nights until after 2 a.m. It's physically demanding, and not just in the pool."
Unlike the kid they doted on in the early days of his career - starting with Mike signing his son up at age 5 to swim at a pool once located across the street from his veterinary office at Jacksonville's Chimney Lakes Animal Hospital - Caeleb must navigate a far more rigorous schedule.
"Now it's the coaches who do for him what we used to do," Mike said. "He was always a good swimmer, but I can remember when we thought, 'Man, it's the River City Swim Championships, it doesn't get any bigger than this.' I had no idea back then there was so many layers to this swimming thing or that he'd get to the Olympics."
If he's not there already, Dressel is putting himself in position to become one of the biggest American swimming stars in history. While it's not as big in public perception as the Olympics, every swimmer at the World Championships knows the competition is just as difficult and the elite from 194 different countries prepare for it with the same intensity.
So for Dressel to go there with the pressure on him significantly ratcheted up, and dominate in the fashion he did, that was probably the greatest feat of his career. Dressel's performance in South Korea, earning him the top male swimmer honor at the event, makes him a virtual lock to win World Swimmer of the Year for the second time in three years.
His parents had an inkling Caeleb might have a monster meet after winning the 50-meter butterfly, the only event in 2017 where he didn't win a gold medal (he finished fourth) and didn't qualify to swim at the Olympics.
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"That was by far the biggest highlight for me," Christina Dressel said. "I knew it was going to be a good meet when he won that first gold medal in the 50 (butterfly)."
Making it all the more meaningful was what Dressel did on the awards podium. He tied a blue and purple bandana around the gold medal to honor Jane Claire McCool, a math teacher at Clay High for over 20 years, who passed away from breast cancer in November, 2017.
"We all had tears in our eyes when he tied the bandana around his medal," Christina said.
The bandana from McCool's running days was a memento given to him by her husband, Mike, at his wife's funeral. Dressel carries it with him as part of his swimming gear to every meet. Dressel's black Labrador, named Jane, also pays homage to his late math teacher.
"He and Claire just had a special relationship," said Mike McCool, a Fleming Island resident. "When Claire was in hospice near the end, Caeleb and his sisters (Kaitlyn and Sherridon) came to see her. They talked about the bandana on the (television) broadcast.
"It's neat that Caeleb still honors her. It's not like he does it for the publicity. He's just a great young man."
The Dressel family has no doubt that McCool's spirit might well have carried him through his daunting schedule in South Korea, which included winning three gold medals (50 freestyle, 100 butterfly, 4 X 100 mixed free relay) in a span of less than two hours on Saturday.
"I'm looking at him after that relay and Caeleb was wobbling on the pool deck," Christina said. "I told Meghan, 'I think he's going to pass out.' He was just spent. His body didn't have any more to give and he still had one more race the next day."
Once Dressel's competition was done, a security guard let his parents and Haila get behind a fenced area to get away from the fans, allowing them to finally get some private moments with Caeleb.
"I grabbed his hand and he had cuts all over his fingers just from pulling on his suit, taking it on and off so much," Christina said. "He lifted up his shirt and you could see his abs were like in a cramp. As a Mom, that still gets me because that's my baby. He was just exhausted.
"In moments like that, I just always want a hug. Just give me a hug and I'm good."
That hug will have to do for another month because that's about how long it'll probably be before the Dressels get to spend any down time with Caeleb. He had to spend Monday and Tuesday in photo shoots with Speedo to advance the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He and sister, Sherridon (100 backstroke, 200 back, 100 free), will be competing at the Phillips 66 Nationals later this week in California, though it's not certain how many events Caeleb will participate.
After another World Championship medal haul for the ages, Dressel is poised to have a career that could approach Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time. Sprinters tend to peak in their late 20s, meaning Dressel is young enough to compete in two, maybe three, more Olympics.
The world spotlight could be shining on Caeleb Dressel for a long time. His family will just have to savor those hugs when they can get them.
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