May 03 USA Water Polo's Biggest Winner

By Brandon Penny | May 03, 2013, 5:15 p.m. (ET)
 
(L-R): Tumua Anae, Kami Craig, The Biggest Loser winner Danni
Allen, Courtney Mathewson, Leah Robertson and Kelly Rulon

When Danni Allen received a Tweet from USA Water Polo congratulating her for winning season 14 of The Biggest Loser, she was “in shock.” When USA Water Polo then asked if she wanted to get in the pool with members of the 2012 Olympic gold-medal-winning women’s team, Allen had little hesitation — yes.

The invitation — and her acceptance — was a clear sign of how much her life had changed in the past seven months.

In August 2012, Allen followed every minute of Team USA’s journey to Olympic gold. She knew the players’ names. She watched every game. In fact, she streamed the games online while at work, perhaps instead of doing her work, she admits now.

At that point, Allen has no doubt that she would have turned down an opportunity to jump in the pool with the U.S. national team members. So what’s changed?

One-hundred twenty-one pounds and, more importantly, a newfound self-confidence.

“I would have been so insecure, so ‘No I can’t do that, I can’t play, I’ll look like an idiot,’” Allen said of her former self. “I’d be too afraid of what could happen in a negative result than see the experience that’s laid out in front of me.

“Even though I jumped in the pool today, I was like a fish out of the water in that water because I was trying to get my legs back, my hips were starting to get to me; but to let that experience happen and not be afraid of it I think is the biggest thing I’ve learned.”

Allen slimmed from 258 pounds to 137 pounds on the most recent season of NBC’s reality weight-loss show, which ended March 18. Over the course of six months, she lost 46.9 percent of her starting weight and earned $250,000.

“Obviously everyone can see that I’ve changed physically, but it’s the mental thing that (trainer Jillian Michaels) concentrated on a lot with me,” Allen said. “And it has to do with not being afraid to experience life, and there were a lot of demons that I had inside myself. I was still scared that even when I lost the weight I wouldn’t be happy so that’s why I never really pushed for it and never went for it.

“And now I’m having all these experiences and everything is happening and normally things that I’d be afraid to do, I am just ready to be like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”

 
Danni Allen, winner of The Biggest Loser, refreshes her water polo
skills with members of Team USA

Growing up in Wheeling, Ill., Allen was on her high school’s soccer and swim teams. One day a friend’s father suggested she try water polo, and Allen fell in love with the sport. She went on to play for the club team at Clemson University in South Carolina, but Allen’s water polo career would end during her junior year when she suffered a knee injury.

Six years later she returned to the sport surrounded by the United States’ most elite players, including Olympic gold medalists Tumua Anae, Kami Craig, Courtney Mathewson, Kelly Rulon and 2011 World University Games silver medalist Leah Robertson.

“Kami introduced herself and I’m like, ‘Oh, I know who you are,’” Allen said. “I was really in awe of all of them and once we started playing I was like, ‘You guys are intense. No wonder you won!’”

The sentiment was reciprocated. As the five athletes began teaching Allen water polo drills, such as holding a five-gallon water jug upside down above your head while eggbeatering — how water polo players tread water — until it empties out, they said they instantly realized why Allen earned the title of champion in her own right. Allen joked that she nearly drowned the first time she tried that water jug drill but eventually succeeded in emptying the jug and staying afloat.

“To get to know Danni’s story, it’s incredible and she lost 121 pounds, and it just goes to show you set your mind to something and you can do it,” said Craig, a two-time Olympic medalist. “Setting goals and working towards those goals is awesome, and it takes a certain kind of person to be that dedicated, that focused. And you can tell right away Danni has a winning attitude, wanted to try everything we threw at her, and I knew that was a part of her success on the show.”

Allen was game for any drills that coach Adam Krikorian threw at her, even when the drills were intimidating to a player of Craig’s caliber, let alone someone who had been out of the water for six years, Craig noted.

Allen said she has always struggled with her weight and was overweight during her varsity soccer days in high school, mainly because of poor nutrition habits (the biggest tip she learned on The Biggest Loser, she said, is portion control). After her water polo career ended in injury, Allen lost her competitive edge and began to focus too much on “life’s plan of graduate college, find a job, buy a home, get married.”

Trainer Michaels worked to bring the athlete in Allen back out.

Since the show Allen has become an avid runner and uses her newfound passion as both a fitness tool and therapy session. Last weekend Allen ran the St. Jude Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville and finished in the top-eight percent of women. Her ultimate goal is the Chicago Marathon in October.

“I think everyone should be involved in some sort of sport, no matter what,” she said. “And it doesn’t mean a competitive sport like water polo or soccer. What I mean is getting the opportunity to go out and be active and put that little competitive edge in your belly. There’s something that gives you that fire about a sport. And I love it.”

Allen also has plans to return to the water polo pool. Inspired by her time with the women’s team, she said she will likely bring her sister in the pool with her and teach her “the best sport you can get into for fitness.”

When asked if she might go for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Allen laughed it off and said, “Maybe from the stands! I’ll be cheering.”

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