COLUMBIA — His gaze darts back and forth, first straight ahead, then at the doors, then over to the stairs as his teammates trickle past him and into the room.
Alan Waters is restless. He is trying to fit in. People are telling him that what he is doing doesn't happen every year, that it's special. But he is just trying to make some sense of why it matters.
Rankings through Feb. 15 from intermatwrestle.com
1. Matt McDonough (Iowa) sophomore
2. Anthony Robles (Arizona State) Senior
3. Brandon Precin (Northwestern) Senior
4. James Nicholson (Old Dominion) Senior
5. Zach Sanders (Minnesota) Junior
6. Ryan Mango (Stanford) Sophomore
7. Jarrod Patterson (Oklahoma) Sophomore
8. Jon Morrison (Oklahoma State) Freshman
9. Alan Waters (Missouri) Freshman
10. Frank Perrelli (Cornell) Junior
Waters knows where he needs to look, but it’s as if he can’t quite make himself. In his mind, he is not where he should be. He is not good at hiding it. He is perched on the edge of his seat. He is ready to bolt. It’s as if he is trying his hardest not to complain that this conversation is keeping him from doing what he loves most.
Waters, a true freshman on the Missouri wrestling team, is the nation's No. 9 competitor in the 125-pound weight class. A high school standout who went 182-4 at Park Hill High School in Kansas City and won four state championships, Waters has transitioned almost seamlessly into his college career. At 36-4, he has only one goal in mind: He is going to be a national champion, and he has dedicated nearly every aspect of his life to making that happen.
For Waters, reaching that goal is an all-consuming task. It involves training for more hours than most people can imagine, living his life in just the right way. Proper diet, proper choices, proper time management — they all come into play. Even his closest friendship on the team, with senior Todd Schavrien, is partially just another means through which Waters is becoming a better wrestler. Besides the sport, there’s little time for anything else, for interviews, for talking, for reflecting on what he wants to do and what he has already done. There’s not even time for congratulations.
“He just wants to wrestle,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “He doesn’t want the fanfare. He’s in it for internal reasons. He doesn’t need all that rah-rah stuff.”
It’s his internal drive that has lead Waters to where he is today. This is the guy who moved into his dorm early so that he could begin training, lifting weights alone while his fellow freshmen settled into their rooms. He is the guy who arrives early to practice and stays late, who will sacrifice anything for his sport. He is the guy who refuses to celebrate. He thinks that winning is an expectation, not an event.
“I think after you win, if you celebrate it’s like you expected to lose and you’re excited or surprised that you didn’t,” Waters said. “If you go out there expecting to win, and you do, well then congratulations. But that’s it.”
Not everyone has the luxury of looking at winning through that lens, but Waters has put in the time and effort to get to that point. He has been wrestling since he was 7 years old, and it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t had the same work ethic for his entire 12-year career. Smith admitted that Waters isn’t the most athletic wrestler who has ever come through his program, but that’s not all that matters. In a sport with such a complex mental element, Smith said that Waters has found the balance between mindset and physical training. But even that balance is not enough in Waters’ eyes.
“Being a national champion, or trying to be, is doing all the extra little things,” Waters said.
That’s why he is staring at the doors, waiting until he can jump up from his seat and punch in the entry code. He wants to practice, to sweat, to make mistakes and fix them. He believes that every minute of training counts. That’s how he manages to talk about being a national champion like it’s just another part of his season, the ending he expects. Smith said he has seen other wrestlers with motivation similar to that of the freshman, but athletes who can make Waters’ goal a reality don’t come around each year. Instead of just talking about becoming a national champion, boasting about what he can do, Smith said, Waters lives his goal.
From where Waters sits, with his body angled toward the doors, there's one part of the room he can't see: the life-sized picture on the wall behind him. It’s a massive shot of former Missouri wrestler and national champion Ben Askren, a program legend with whom Waters is already being compared. It’s a funny contrast. The muscular, mature-looking Askren in the photo seemingly raising his arms over this young man’s smaller silhouette. That picture is just another reminder of Waters’ potential, but he doesn’t need to look at it. His coaches' and teammates' expectations, the comparisons to the former star — none of that quite stacks up to the expectations Waters has for himself.
Waters is his own toughest critic, but he is surprisingly level-headed. He is calmer about his four losses than you would expect, convinced that he is capable of better. He knows exactly what happened in each of those matches, the arm in the wrong place, the slip, the missed read of his opponent’s next move. The losses aren’t cause to worry or panic, he said. Instead, they’re times to pause, catch his breath just for a moment, before resuming what he has been doing. Because for the most part, he is winning. He knows it’s working.
As the only true freshman on the team, Waters could have had a hard time adjusting to his role on the squad. Although he can’t quite isolate how his relationship with the other freshmen is different, it unquestionably is. He doesn’t know it any other way. He is the only freshman on the lineup for meets, the only one who stayed at school over Thanksgiving break to train. But somehow he has managed to be anything but an outsider.
“He’s even starting to become more and more of a leader on the team as a true freshman, which is an oddity,” Smith said.
Smith added that Waters isn’t just a leader for the freshmen or an example to them of how to train when it is their turn to compete. He is an example to all of his teammates, even the seniors. Despite the fact that he is new to collegiate wrestling, Waters has little need for a role model. What he has found instead is a companion, a confidant in Schavrien. Theirs is a friendship, but it’s also just another way of preparing for a national title.
“A lot of our goals are the same, so we bonded that way,” Schavrien said.
The two wrestlers, who both aspire to be national champions this year, first took note of one another in the wrestling room. Once, twice and then nearly every day, they were the only two teammates left training at the end of the day, and they began to bond at practices.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving break, when Schavrien invited Waters over to his home, that they realized they could be friends outside of wrestling as well. Now, just three months later, the two are almost inseparable. Although Waters still officially lives in his dorm room, he has all but moved into Schavrien’s place and spends most nights there. They watch movies and play ping pong — when they’re not talking about wrestling and monitoring each other’s nutrition.
In a way, Schavrien has taken Waters under his wing, Smith said, but their relationship is different than the typical freshman-senior friendship. Waters is at the same time mentee and mentor, and in the end, Schavrien said, the age difference really doesn’t come into play. What began as a senior reaching out to a younger teammate has evolved into something radically different.
“I was trying to help him out at first, but it ended up helping me out,” Schavrien said. “He pushes me. If I look over and see him working harder or running faster, I’m going to run faster.”
There’s definitely an element of competition between the two. They keep a close eye on the rankings and are constantly trying to best each other. At No. 11 in the 141-pound weight class, Schavrien has some improving to do to match Waters.
Waters is lucky that there is someone who shares his national championship goal and, like him, has a realistic chance of succeeding. But Schavrien seems a little looser, and his smiles come a bit easier and wider than Waters. He has done this before, been to the big meets. But he remembers what it’s like to be the new kid. In a way, that discomfort is Waters’ only disadvantage, and Schavrien is working to eliminate it.
“He just came into college kind of blind,” Schavrien said. “All his buddies that are freshman have a different mindset, so the toughest thing for him is being part of a lineup where most of the guys have been here for years. We’ve found our roots.”
With Schavrien’s support, his coach’s faith and the hours of training he has logged, Waters’ goal is becoming more and more realistic. As the season progresses, Waters said, it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel is getting not only closer, but clearer. And he is not the only one who feels that way. Schavrien has been telling Waters for months that he is the best 125-pound wrestler in the country, and the senior thinks his friend is starting to believe.
“It’s helpful to have me in his ear, reminding him that he really is that good,” Schavrien said.
When Waters shows up to a match, Smith said, he brings everything to the table, and it’s no surprise. In a way, every part of the freshman’s life is somehow just another piece of the puzzle, another element that should help him realize his goal of becoming a national champion. His training, his friends, his mentality, his meals — even his time spent relaxing and watching movies — are all moving him in some way toward that goal, and he brings all those factors to every competition.
There are so many ways to depict the young wrestler, too many adjectives and seeming contradictions. He is confident, but not cocky. Talented, but not the most athletic. Quiet, but a leader. A mentor and a mentee. But for Smith, describing Waters isn’t complicated. It takes just a short pause and one word.
Alan Waters is special.