FEATURE The Daniel Waters Story a long journey for American Univ s first All American

By Patrick MacAdie | Jan. 09, 2006, 10:49 a.m. (ET)
WASHINGTON - Lying on the mat at 2004 EIWAs with a torn ACL and his season over, Daniel Waters told his teammates and coaching staff something he had never told anyone before in his life.

"I told coach and everyone on the team, I'm done, I'm not wrestling again," Waters said. "That's it. I'm done."

Before the injury, Waters had been on the brink of greatness for the first time in his life in the wrestling world. After losing three out of his last four years to injury, the frustration of starting all over again had become too much.

Unlike in his past life in the Navy and at Penn State when by sheer will Waters could summon himself through challenges, this time it would take a combination of a supportive family, inspiring coaches and teammates as well as his desire to control his destiny for him to reopen the final chapter of his wrestling career.

SEEING WATERS walk around today at a burly 170ish pounds it's hard to imagine him as a lightweight wrestling champion from Delaware, yet, that's where his career on the mat began. Born in Germany, the son of a military father and a German mother, Waters stayed abroad for almost eight years and on returning to the states, moved around from California to Kansas to Maryland and finally ended up in Delaware his junior and senior years of high school. Alongside his twin brother and teammate Donald, Waters became a two-time state champion at 119 pounds. His success in the less competitive Delaware ranks brought in only a few far from thrilling college scholarship opportunities. Unwilling to go the route of his brother (who took a scholarship to Delaware State and later transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy) but without another option to pay for college after high school, Waters' only feasible answer was enlisting in the military.

Early on in Navy boot camp, Waters, then 18, was shown a video on Special Forces that stole his interest. Cocky and strong-willed, Waters was initially less-than-impressed by the difficulty of the training. "I was like psssh, I could do that," he now admits. One aspect of the SEAL fitness test, Waters mistakenly overlooked in his earlier assessment also happened to be his biggest weakness: swimming. "I wasn't the best swimmer," he says smiling. "I lived in the city and no one ever taught me how to swim. I'd do two laps and that was it. I'd be dead."

Waters proceeded to fail the test, which meant his next stop was at "A" school where he learned his Navy job. In his off-time, the still-growing Waters continued training for the SEALs by swimming three times a week.

He passed the next test and soon realized that though the training was far from a cinch, he was one of the toughest in his SEAL training group. "People look at the training and go `that looks fun,'" the humbled veteran of the program says now. "It's not fun. There's nothing fun about it." Learning the various intricacies of underwater demolition combined with the fact that they had to be on their feet, running from drill to drill and lunch, broke down even the "studs" as Waters would say.

From being upright all day and having to run two miles each way to every meal - 85 miles a week for those counting - he developed stress fractures in both legs. Treatment for the injuries was not a viable option if one wanted to graduate Waters says. Doing that would have likely caused him to get dropped or rolled back in his training and forced to start over, so he kept running and putting up with legs that were literally on the verge of snapping.

That pain threshold coupled with positive self-talk and having the "fuel" of watching even his toughest comrades quit got him through the most difficult phases of training. "Everyday I doubted myself and didn't think I was going to make it," he remembers. "I just said, `let me make it to this day, the end of the week.'" When "hell" week came around, Waters stayed tough in the face of fresh instructors who were rotated on eight hour shifts "just to kill you" he says. When his peers decided enough was enough, Waters persevered. "Other people quitting actually kind of feeds you, because you tell yourself he was a tough guy and he quit," Waters reflects. On graduation day, at 19, Waters stood proud as by far the youngest of the 14 who made it from a class of 140.

THANKS TO HIS brother, wrestling and college were still on his mind while he was deployed in the SEAL unit. "In the beginning [of his six year military deployment] I had foregone the idea of going back to college," he recalls. "But my brother was wrestling at Navy and sending me tapes of NCAA Nationals and I was thinking, `I can do that, I could beat those guys.'" Going back to school also made sense for his military career and financially. "I figured if I was going to do my job and be a SEAL, I should go back, earn a degree, become an officer and get paid more for doing the same job," he says.

The two plans came together when Troy Sunderland, who had been an assistant at Navy and coached his brother, got the head coaching job at Penn State. "I called him up and he said to come," Waters remembers. Arriving at Penn State in the fall of 2000 a jacked and fit 210 pounds, Waters soon discovered the reality of returning to the mat - like his SEAL training - would be much different than how he drew it up in his mind. "Even with SEAL training, I don't care," he says. "Wrestling from high school to college is night and day."

His past military training and accomplishments meant nothing to his coaches or teammates in the wrestling room. "[I was] rusty, had all the wrong muscles, stiff, and had no motion," Waters remembers. Not earning the starting spot or competing at all in his freshman year rendered him just a speck in the periphery of his teammates and coaches. He had to fend for himself and it took him all year, through the summer, countless injuries - "you name it, from cracked ribs to dislocated fingers to sprained ankles," he says - and hours looking at tapes and his own diet to find a spot on the team his sophomore year.

By that fall Waters had restructured his entire body looking for the job at 157, something he attributes to his competitiveness and openly regrets now. "Everyone told me, including my brother, don't [cut weight], but I did and I won my spot," he recollects. But his body was weak and after only wrestling in two duals he felt an excruciating pop in his knee. "I heard a big pop, grinding and tearing sound and I knew I had done something very serious." After a minute of letting his "sailor's mouth" fly, the pain subsided. He later found out that was only because he had torn his ACL completely and severed all the nerves in the area. Complications from a botched first surgery slowed his rehab and virtually immobilized him. His knee turned black and was so stiff he could not spin a bicycle pedal for two months or wrestle for nine. The only constructive thing Waters could do in the meantime to fuel his motivation was watch tapes and do whatever lifting he could. "I was always in the office, just tapes, tapes, tapes," Waters remembers. "I'd record them and take them home and study."

Back up to full weight at 174 by the next fall, Waters won the starting spot at the team's wrestle-offs, but his knee was still not 100 percent. To be certain it would fully recover he decided to have another surgery, which kept him out until January. He struggled with foes and his own rustiness in his return to competition and went 6-12 the rest of the year. A win over Minnesota's Matt Nagel highlighted the stretch, which culminated in a second round 8-7 loss at Big Ten's that ended his season.

IN ONLY THREE years he'd graduated from Penn State, but in wrestling Waters still had a bad taste in his mouth because he'd only hit the mat 22 times over that span. Bolstered by his own admission that he "got 100 percent better just that half year into the summer," he searched for a university with a good international affairs graduate program and where he could earn a wrestling scholarship. Remembering that he had once heard of American University at a tournament won by former Eagle standout Marc Hoffer, Waters searched the internet and learned that two-time All-American Shawn Enright was an assistant coach for AU.

Though Waters was initially more interested in Oklahoma and Virginia who were promising full scholarships, a call from newly-hired head coach Mark Cody and a visit to the school were all it took to make up Waters' mind. "I talked to Cody and I liked him so much more," Waters recalls of their first face-to-face meeting. "He was someone I could talk to ... [and] I liked the area. For me, it was a better fit."

Cody rebuilt the diligent Waters from the basics up and as the year went on he improved tremendously. "When he first got here, technically, he was way behind," Cody remembers. Early in the year Cody purposefully put Waters against weaker opponents who he could use to on his weaknesses. The learning paid off as Waters kept at it, reeling off the most wins in Div. I going into the EIWA Tournament. "He got better with the competition and definitely had a chance to go to NCAAs going into EIWAs," Cody says. Knowing his training was geared to the tournament, Waters' confidence was also on the rise going into his first round match against Navy's Chris Pogue. Ahead on points early in the match, Waters got in a bad position and then it happened. In a brief instant the opposite knee Waters felt the same excruciating pop as two years before. Hobbled on the mat with a torn ACL and knowing his upcoming goals were history and his future in the sport was - at best - in doubt, Waters told his teammates and coaches that he was done wrestling. "When I tore it [at Penn State], I felt like something was taken away from me," he explains of his reasons to come back that first time. "I told myself if I ever [tore an ACL] again that was it."

In the days and weeks following knee surgery Waters' initial gut response subsided and he evaluated his immediate and long-term future. He knew that just to walk around normally he had to rehab the knee. When Cody called three-time All-American Corey Olson who told Waters he was back wrestling in three months from the same injury, Waters had a goal to shoot for. A reflection on how his legacy would sit in his heart and look to his family if he left the sport without giving it everything he had was the final indicator that he needed to return to the ring. "I wanted to accomplish something - become an All-American or a National Champion, so I could say it was all worth something," he says. "I couldn't just walk away with a bad taste in my mouth, or the thought that I just couldn't cut it or measure up .... What was I going to tell my kids? `I wrestled?'" he explains. "I would have had to tell my kids that I quit ... and I definitely didn't want to do that."

THE FINAL CHAPTER began in once and sometimes twice-a-day rehab sessions all by his lonesome. "Daniel did it all on his own," Cody remembers. "He did not miss a day." During the early days of rehab Cody kept on Waters, telling him the team needed him back for the season. An influx of new talent ready to hit the mat headed by Waters' wrestling room partner Josh Glenn and transfers Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov and Adam LoPiccolo had rendered the latter of Cody's statement meaningless in Waters' eyes when he returned to the wrestling room. "I was on the back burner and that motivated me because I had to outdo them," Waters says. "Obviously you want your teammates to do well, so I said, `well, I have to elevate myself as well.'" Cody concurs. "It definitely lit a fire under him to have other guys doing well, especially Glenn. They feed off each other."

Waters made most of his gains by continuing to pick the brain of Cody and be a student of the sport, something in stark contrast to his experience at Penn State. Before he came to AU, if he was hurt, "they just wanted you to push through it," Waters explains. "I'm a Navy SEAL. You don't have to tell me about being tough. I'm not going to try to weasel out of anything .... [So] coming here and talking to coach and having him understand when I was hurt and having him go over the little things ... I think that helped even more."

Returning to the mat better than ever, Waters' highlighted his regular season with a fourth-place finish at the 42nd Midlands Tournament. Going into EIWAs for likely the final time, Waters was looking for a bid to Nationals even though his weight class was arguably the toughest. In the semifinals he lost a quadruple overtime match against Andy Roy and then went on to face returning All-American Travis Frick for third-place, who he lost to. "I had never wrestled him before ... what can you say," Waters admits with a shrug. With the loss he still earned a spot to NCAAs, but he had to deal with the fact he finished worst among his teammates with Abdurakhmanov grabbing first, Glenn taking second and Adam LoPiccolo third.

In the tunnel before his first-round match at NCAAs Cody saw a wide-eyed Waters, who after five years of tribulations was finally in reach of his goal. "When he stepped out, he was so excited to be there looking at a crowd of 15,000 people," the coach recalls. "He looked at me and said, `finally' and pumped his fist. He just went out there and started pounding guys."

Waters won his opening match, 6-5, and then went on to face top-ranked Chris Pendleton of Oklahoma State. "He was no different than anyone else," a poised Waters recalls. "I knew I could beat him." In the last two minutes of the match Waters was down 12-10 and got hit with two penalty points, losing 14-10 - the closest anyone would come to beating Pendleton at NCAAs.

One and done from that point on, Waters pinned his next opponent from Hofstra and stepped up for his rematch against Frick from Lehigh. With even his closest friends assuming his run was over, Waters triumphed 7-3, eliminating the 2003 All-American from Nationals.

After that, everyone got on the Waters' bandwagon and he internalized it, knowing he was a win away from All-American. "I knew I was going to win the next match," he says of his thoughts before facing Oklahoma's E.K. Waldhaus, even though he was the only wrestler to beat Pendleton that year. Waters' confidence was reaffirmed when he sized up the Sooner as he drilled in warmups. "Don't think about the prize, just think about the match," Cody told him and stepping onto the mat, Waters was ready. "I was calm, I got in on two good shots and didn't finish," Waters recalls. "He shot in for a high crotch. I defended it, and boom, ended up cradling him up and I thought I got the pin. He was so tired after that cradle and pretty much that was the match." Waters came away as the 7-3 victor and earned American's first All-American honor in the wrestling program's history.

The rush of adrenaline from the win and the potential of staying alive and fighting through the consolations for third-place drowned out the painful injury he had suffered during the match while cradling his opponent. Earlier in the year he had strained his groin, causing a pain that was always evident but not nagging enough to keep him from wrestling. The cradle re-aggravated it and once he got back to the locker room, he could feel the numbness in his groin. Ten minutes later, he could not walk.

Thinking he had a night's rest Waters was hopeful that it might feel better in his next match. When he found out he had to go at it again, Waters remembers telling Cody, "I don't want you to think that that I'm happy to be an All-American now because I want to win, but I can't walk," Waters remembers.

In the opening moments of the match he knew he was in trouble, but did not quit. "I went for my signature move and it hurt," the also Academic All-American notes. "I got taken down and I could not put any pressure on my feet so I couldn't get up. I was fighting out their just not to get pinned." Waters ended up losing 15-0 when he had never been majored, tech falled let alone pinned ever before. Unable to go the next day, he ended up forfeiting and taking eighth-place overall. After the tournament he found out he had stress fracture in his pelvis.

THE FIRE in Waters' eyes and exuberance in his voice when he talks about getting another chance against the people who outwrestled him in the past is likely the result of the fight it has taken for him to even get a chance to compete successfully at this level. He used to scoff at former teammates who became coaches because he never understood why they could not let go of the sport. Now he faced with the possibility that his final season is in the books, Waters is beginning to see things similarly. "When you're going through it, all you see is the bad things and how much everything sucks," Waters relates. "But then when it's over and everything is taken away, you see how much you missed it. You realize how much you have invested in it."

With or without him, the now 29-year-old husband and father has high hopes that numerous champions will follow in his footsteps. "It's nice to have success by yourself, but you have a good team and that's even better. Winning is contagious"

In the immediate future, Waters has kept training with AU in the wrestling room and hopes to get this year back as a medical redshirt from his freshmen year at Penn State. But with his Masters in International Affairs and his dual All-American nods, for the first time in his life he can move forward, knowing he has accomplished more than any other AU wrestler before him.

Relating one of the future conversations he plans on having about AU wrestling alludes to his belief in the program's ability and that his status as the lone All-American could be in jeopardy as early as this March. "I want people to come up to me and say, `Oh, you went to AU? They're good,'" he says. "And I can be like, `Yeah, I was their first All-American."