Persistence pays dividends as veteran Danny Felix finally makes U.S. World Team
Danny Felix never took his wrestling shoes off and left them on the center of the mat.
But they did wind up in another place when he was contemplating retirement.
“I’ve thrown my shoes in the garbage can a few times,” Felix said. “But I always pulled them back out. I just wasn’t thinking clearly after some of the losses.”
One of those times Felix seriously considered quitting was 2008.
Felix lost a close match to Henry Cejudo in the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Las Vegas. Cejudo went on to win an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China.
But like so many other times, Felix couldn’t quit. Not without achieving his goal of making a World or Olympic team.
He turned 35 in March. A month later, he failed to place at the 2009 U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas after suffering an injury.
He initially fell short of qualifying for the U.S. World Team Trials, but was awarded a wild card to the event at 55 kg/121 lbs. Not many people gave Felix a chance of winning this past weekend at the Trials in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
But Felix finally came through. He did it the hard way, winning the Challenge Tournament as U.S. Nationals champion Nick Simmons sat and waited to see who he would meet in the best-of-3 finals.
Felix then dug down to win a hard-fought, three-match battle with Simmons to make his first U.S. World Team. Felix won the first match over Simmons and lost the second before rebounding to win the decisive third bout.
Felix earned a trip to the World Championships on Sept. 21-27 in Herning, Denmark.
“I’ve never done anything easily in my life – I’ve always had to fight for everything,” Felix said. “When I won, it was just a feeling of relief. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to jump up and down. You never know how you’re going to react until you’re in the moment. I got emotional and had a few tears in my eyes.”
After being so close so many times, Felix is now on a U.S. World Team filled with guys who are much younger than he is. Two of his teammates on the World freestyle team are still in college. The other four are in their early to mid-20s.
“The generation I grew up with, all those guys have retired,” Felix said. “You go to training camps and you see all those new faces, and you almost feel like you’re an outsider.”
Even as the young new blood kept coming in, Felix kept on wrestling.
In past years, he had placed as high as second at the U.S. Nationals. He had taken third in the Olympic Trials and World Team Trials.
“I don’t know what kept me going all these years,” he said. “I’ve always been very persistent. I just pushed through it. The bottom line is I always believed my time would come. I was close many times. I was tired of being second, I was tired of third. I wanted to be on a World Team. I wasn’t going to be denied.”
Less than two months before the Trials, the second-seeded Felix struggled in a quarterfinal loss to Michael Martinez en route to not placing in the U.S. Nationals.
“In the process of taking him down, I hurt my neck,” Felix said. “I had a horrible pain running down the left side of my body, from my fingertips all the way down my back to my hip. It got progressively worse and I was literally paralyzed out there.”
Felix was diagnosed with a herniated bulge between his fifth and sixth vertebrae. It caused a pinched nerve that led to the tingling.
Felix had to take a break from wrestling.
“It was like a bad dream,” he said. “For a week and a half, I couldn’t even turn my head to look to the left. The scary part is I didn’t know if it was going to heal in time for me to wrestle in the Trials.”
Felix eventually started feeling better and began training full-time again in early May. He took part in the Sunkist Kids training camp in Lincoln, Neb., just before the Trials.
“The camp went great,” he said. “I was fresh and I felt great again. My coaches did a great job preparing me. We simulated the day of competition in practice. That let me know I would be ready physically and mentally for the tournament.”
During the camp in Lincoln, Felix also read the book by 41-year-old Olympic swimmer Dara Torres entitled, “Age is Just a Number.”
“She was in five Olympics,” Felix said. “She's kind of going through what I'm going through – people having doubts and talking about her age. It's motivating. I think it really sparked me. I read it the week before I went to compete. It was the best book to have in my hands.”
To say Felix is a busy man is a massive understatement.
In addition to being a World Class athlete, Felix is a full-time assistant coach at West Virginia University.
He also is part of a program at Mylan Pharmaceuticals, based in Morgantown, W.Va., that allows Olympic hopefuls to work part-time for a full-time salary.
Felix works as a supervisor to the security guards at the Mylan plant. Two other wrestlers – Mark McKnight and Drew Headlee – are involved with the Mylan program. There is currently a spot open for another wrestler to take part in the program.
“It’s an outstanding program and an outstanding company,” he said. “It’s an amazing place to work. I’ve been there almost five years. My supervisor is outstanding – he is so supportive and understands what I’m doing. The place has unbelievable benefits.”
As if he isn’t busy enough, Felix also is an accomplished artist. He puts his artistic skills on display by custom painting designs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He also rides a Harley.
Felix’s work is on display at www.toxicpaint.com
“I love to paint bikes – I have so much passion for it,” he said. “I will do anything they want me to do. I will paint scenery, flames, skulls. I get all kinds of requests. (U.S. Assistant National Freestyle Coach) Bill Zadick wants me to paint his bike, and I’ve worked on some designs for (U.S. National Greco-Roman Coach) Steve Fraser.”
Felix said the support of his wife, Cheri, has been paramount in his success on the mat. They met in 1996 and have been married the last six years.
“She’s been through a lot of the emotional ups and downs with me,” Danny said. “When I win, she wins. When I lose, she loses. She’s the best wife in the World. She’s never complained about my schedule, not one time. She believed in me just as much as I did. That means a lot to me.”
Danny and his wife have an aspiring young wrestler in their 3½-year-old son Luca.
“Luca loves wrestling,” Danny said with a laugh. “He has a singlet and a headgear.”
Felix grew up in Phoenix near the neighborhood where Cejudo, who is 13 years younger, later grew up.
“We went to the same junior high,” Felix said, “and we know a lot of the same people.”
Felix said he didn’t watch the Olympics on television “because I was still upset about not making the team.”
Cejudo is taking this year off from wrestling.
“I did watch the video of his win over the Japanese guy in the finals,” Felix said. “I was happy for Henry. I wanted all of our guys to do well.”
Felix keeps a journal and vividly remembers his last entry before last weekend’s World Team Trials.
“I just wrote that second or third place wasn’t going to be good enough,” he said. “And I wrote that I had the ability to win the World Team Trials and that I was the best guy in the weight class. I felt it was my time.”
Making his first World Team still hasn’t fully sunk in for Felix.
“It hasn’t actually,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m still smiling ear-to-ear. I told my wife that I don’t even remember what I did to win in the finals. I will have to go back and look at the video.”
Felix credits his coach, Sammie Henson, for much of his success in wrestling.
“Sammie has been such a huge inspiration to me – he’s my best friend,” Felix said. “We started off as training partners and became much more than that. People see us together and think we’re two 12-year-olds in a candy store. We joke around and have a lot of fun together.”
Felix and Henson met in Oklahoma in 1999.
“I thought I worked hard, but nothing like Sammie did,” Felix said. “After the first workout, I didn’t know if I would be able to train with him because he was all over me and he was so physical. He trained so hard. I learned how to train and how to compete by being around Sammie Henson.”
Henson is just three years older than Felix. Henson won a World bronze medal in 2006. At that time, Henson was the same age Felix is now. Henson also was in the same weight class that Felix is now.
“Everybody knows what Danny’s potential is,” said Henson, also a past World champion and Olympic silver medalist. “His problem has been when he loses his focus. He would have mental lapses and lose his composure when times got tough.
“He’s bigger and stronger than everybody else in the World. If he has a good game plan and gets his attacks off, then he can have success. I definitely feel like he can do well over there. He has the potential to have a great tournament.”
Felix now has the entire summer to prepare for his first World Championships.
“I think I can do great at the World Championships,” Felix said. “I think I can be a World champion. If I wrestle to my ability and I stay focused and stick to a game plan, I can come out on top.”