As a runner at DeMatha Catholic High School, Caleb Dean struggled to garner any interest from college track and field coaches.
With his mother Angela’s help, Dean emailed and texted about 100 schools. Most of them ignored their attempts at reaching out; even fewer bothered to respond and took months to get back to him when they did.
Even the University of Maryland, where Dean would ultimately end up, took until May 2019 to respond to an email from March.
He had his share of speculations as to why schools were not receptive to his inquiries. Maybe, he thought, it was because he failed to continuously break personal records at each of his meets — a possible lack of desire to get better.
Some were worried about his height. The size of hurdles jump from 39 inches at the high school level to 42 inches at the collegiate level. Most schools wanted Dean to consider attending as a walk-on, but that was impossible for the Dean family to afford.
One coach from Ohio State, a school Dean emailed, did respond. However, Dean did not get the response he hoped for.
“The reason I’m not recruiting Caleb is because he doesn’t have any dog in him,” was what Dean recalled the Buckeyes coach texting to his high school coach.
It drove Dean to work even harder, run even faster and relentlessly chase his dreams.
Now in his third year at this university, Dean holds the school record in the 60 meter sprint along with several first-place finishes. He qualified for the 2021 Olympic trials and competed in the Big Ten and NCAA championships.
In recent meets, Dean has run into that Ohio State coach who dismissed his recruitment.
“He always congratulates me after I run because I beat his runners,” he said.
That coach sent another text recently — this one to Dean’s youth coach, who also coaches at Archbishop Carroll High School. Contrary to the text his high school coach received, this one made Dean laugh.
“I need a runner from your team,” Dean said the text read. “I can’t miss out like I did Caleb.”
“Born to move”
Dean, who says he was “born to sprint,” began walking when he was around nine months old, his parents Joseph and Angela Dean say. He was an energetic child and chalking it up to “normal childhood boy energy,” they signed him up for sports.
“I don’t know if he was born to sprint, but he was definitely born to move,” Angela said. “That’s when we recognized, ‘wow he’s actually really fast’ … He really had some natural athletic skill at a very early age.”
Football was the first sport Dean played and the first one he fell in love with. He put his running talents to good use at running back and defensive back.
His track career began shortly after. Neither of Dean’s parents knew much about the sport; most children his age and in the area played lacrosse.
Angela Googled track and field clubs and found one in Bowie, Maryland, about 20 minutes away from their home in Crofton.
When they arrived at his first event, the family was shocked to see the environment that surrounded the sport.
“Little did we know it’s like a whole culture,” Angela said. “We were sucked in right from the beginning.”
At nine years old, Dean won the 4-by-100 race at a national meet as the fourth leg.
However, Dean struggled to keep up with the stature of other runners his age. He was a “late bloomer” as his mother put it. His size had been a disadvantage in both football and track. In races Dean was once winning, he began finishing in the double digits. He started getting less time on the football field, too.
Dean’s father knew it was time to give up football for good when Dean reached ninth grade. Playing on DeMatha’s junior varsity team at defensive back, Dean made a tackle on a player that looked nearly twice his height and weight. Dean’s coach jumped and yelled in excitement on the sideline.
“I’m saying to myself, ‘that’s just a tackle,’” Joseph said. “You’re not going to get no time. This sport is not for you.”
Once he shifted his focus entirely on track, Dean continued to make adjustments to stay competitive. His training moved away from the 100 and 200 meter runs and toward the triple jump and hurdles.
As Dean progressed in new events, he began to grow and catch up with his peers. Although he still was not the ideal size for a runner, his new training regimen allowed him to return to competing in events he ran in as a kid.
Dean was named to the first team All-Met as a senior in 2019 and is the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference’s record holder in the 300-meter hurdles. Still, the attention from colleges was nowhere to be found. Most of the recruiting in track and field takes place before a runner’s senior year. Until then, Dean was still significantly smaller than his competition. By the time he grew, most of his peers had already known where they would be running at the next level.
Dean’s career at Maryland
When Maryland responded to Dean’s email — two months after he sent it — “I took the offer on the spot,” he said.
He burst onto the scene for the Terps, making an immediate impact in the 2020 indoor season as a freshman. He took home a first-place finish in the 60 meter hurdles twice — at the Terrapin Invitational in January and Navy Select in February.
Before the outdoor season began that March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the season to be canceled. Again, Dean was faced with a challenge he would use to motivate him even more.
“[I wanted to] prove to the NCAA they messed up giving me another year of eligibility,” he said.
Dean shined throughout the 2021 indoor season, highlighted by a win in the 60-meter hurdles at the Big Ten indoor invitational.
His success carried over into the first outdoor season of his college career in the spring. He won the 110-meter hurdle at the Maryland Big Ten Invite, the 400-meter hurdle at the Big Ten North Florida Invitational and the same event at the Big Ten Husker Invite. Dean’s season culminated in a trip to the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships.
Then, the accolades followed. After the 2021 indoor and outdoor seasons, Dean was named a second team All-American, awarded Maryland men’s track and field MVP and he qualified for the 2021 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
At the trials, Dean was initially nervous because he would be racing against some of the best runners in his division. He knew he earned his spot, but could not stop the fear of failure from creeping in.
His coach’s encouraging words changed Dean’s mindset. Angela and Caleb’s girlfriend shared the news that he qualified and how to watch the race on social media, so more people watched him race than ever before.
Dean began to believe in himself under the pressure. He made it to the semifinals and finished 11th overall. He has hopes of returning in 2024 for the Paris Olympics.
Dean’s family felt the support for their son from back home in Crofton.
“The support when he went to the trials this summer, it was so amazing,” Angela said. “Everywhere you go people would be like, ‘We’re cheering for Caleb. We saw him on TV. We’re so excited.’”
Three years after being unable to get a timely reply email from Maryland track and field, Coach Andrew Valmon hopes Dean’s success story encourages other local track and field athletes to come to Maryland.
“Visibility and exposure,” Valmon said, describing how Dean’s success impacts recruiting. “Hopefully this will be a destination spot for Maryland track and field kids.”
Dean says he remembers every coach who refused to recruit him and the ones that regret their decision.
Dean believes the Ohio State coach who motivated him does not know that Dean ever saw the text that was sent to his high school coach and that he does not know how much he impacted Dean’s track and field career.
“I’ll always have that statement in the back of my mind,” Dean said. “Showing all these other coaches why they missed out on me, it means a lot … Having that chip on your shoulder, I think that’s good for the sport of track.”