Turn My Swag On

Josh Daniels Was Not a Scholarship Swimmer, But He Became an NCAA Champion

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Josh Daniels

Listen to excerpts from an interview with Cal swimmer and NCAA relay champion Josh Daniels.

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Going into the 2010 NCAAs, Cal men's swimming coach David Durden was still juggling with the relay lineups, particularly with the 200-yard medley relay. Most people figured he would choose Nathan Adrian, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist, for the anchoring freestyle leg.

Durden eventually decided to go with junior Josh Daniels.

"What is Dave Durden thinking?" ESPN analyst Rowdy Gaines wondered.

Gaines questioned if Daniels, a former walk-on, would be quick enough to hold off Auburn's Gideon Lowe, who had just dethroned Cal's Adrian to take the 50 freestyle crown.

Daniels didn't just hold him off; he extended his team's lead to a full body length, making himself, along with his teammates, national champions.

Before the race, most people wondered if Daniels belonged on a relay contending for a national title. For Daniels, however, there was never any doubt that he was the right guy for the job.

"Josh told me, 'If I'm in the lead, or anywhere near the lead, there's no way I'm going to lose it,'" sophomore Tom Shields says of their pre-race exchange. "He just has that absolute assuredness that is necessary for someone who swims the 50."

Daniels would go on to help Cal claim titles in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, helping his team finish second at the NCAA Championships - its highest finish in over 20 years.

When you see his 6-foot-1, 194-pound frame, you immediate know you're looking at a bona fide sprinter. There is visible swagger in his strut, which brings to mind images of a cape-donning Gary Hall Jr. sauntering to the blocks en-route to breaking world records.

Daniels prides himself on his exuberant confidence, whether it relates to athletics or anything else in life, like physical appearance.

"I always talk about how good I look and how sexy I am," Daniels says, tongue fully in cheek. "And that just goes along with having confidence. You've got to believe in yourself and say, 'Hey, look at me, I'm the man.'"

Coming out of high school, Daniels didn't have the notoriety in the swimming world that many eventual NCAA champions do. The Fresno, Calif., native led the Clovis West swim team to four straight CIF titles, and was named team MVP three consecutive seasons, but never garnered any real looks from major collegiate swimming powerhouses.

He turned down scholarship offers from UC Santa Barbara and Indiana to attend Cal. Daniels had taken a recruiting trip to Berkeley and had his application tagged. The only thing missing was the scholarship.

"It was an easy choice," Daniels said. "There was just no way I was going anywhere else."

Once on campus, Daniels became part of a team in the midst of a full blown transition. Cal legend Nort Thorton, who had coached the Bears for 27 years, had just retired, leaving the team looking for its next leader. A year after Daniels' arrival, in came Durden.

"He really just turned my whole focus around, and led me in the right direction," Daniels said. "I just wanted to be better. I wanted to be on the NCAA team. I wanted to score points for the team and be one of those top guys."

Daniels redshirted his first season with the Bears, and only saw moderate success in his next two seasons under Durden's direction. As a redshirt sophomore in 2009, Daniels was able to qualify for NCAAs in the 100 and 50 freestyle, but had what he describes as a disappointing meet. The Bears also struggled as a team, and failed to take a single relay crown.

Instead of being discouraged, Daniels just got hungrier for success, and came out in 2010 with an insatiable drive for excellence.

"All that frustration really upset me," Daniels said. "From the get-go, I just said 'I'm going to do whatever it takes to score for the team at NCAAs.' That just drove me."

The sprinter broke out that next season, becoming a three-time national champion. Still, he never lost that walk-on mindset.

"He has that scrappiness of 'I just want to get in there and beat these guys,'" Durden says. "You watched him gravitate towards a group of athletes that were just a lot better than him, and he got better and better."

Daniels now has the seventh-fastest 50 freestyle time in team history at 19.29, and is considered to be one of the "head honchos of the team," as Shields puts it. He hasn't only become one of the team's physical and athletic leaders, but also has blossomed into an emotional leader as well.

"I have a lot of doubts, and Josh is always like, 'Hey dude, we're going to win,'" Shields says. "He just has that attitude. It's not necessarily being cocky; it's just the way it is. I really appreciate that about him."

Now a fifth-year senior, Daniels wants to instill that same confidence in his teammates. For the Bears, he functions as perennial beacon of determination, helping them understand, and reach, their full potential.

The team has lots of reasons to feel confident, especially given its current one-loss record and status as a heavy favorite to win NCAAs in March. As Daniels has developed in to a top-tier sprinter, Cal has blossomed as well.

After the season, Daniels plans on continuing with swimming, and eyes the 2012 Olympics in London as a potential destination. Even if that goal doesn't materialize, he knows that his confidence will remain unhampered.

Daniels also knows that his model of sheer self-confidence - related to swimming or not - won't be forgotten by his teammates. When asked what his legacy at Cal will be, Daniels' answer is simple.

"Stay sexy."


Connor Byrne covers men's swimming. Contact him at [email protected]

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