Jan. 2, 2008
by Jeff Smith
In her senior year at Clark Read Secondary in London, Ontario, Danielle Williams was convinced that following prep school she would take an extended vacation to Australia, leaving behind a career in diving. Participating at one of her final meets in Ontario, one in which Michigan State diving coach Eric Best happened to be attending, Williams drew the interest of the Spartan coach and quickly moved up to his list of potential recruits. But there was one problem. Williams had all but convinced herself she would not be attending college in the United States.
Best persisted, however, telling Williams all he could about Michigan State and intrigued her enough to where she agreed to take an official visit. Once on campus, Williams realized that all this time her gut was wrong. She needed to continue diving and she needed to do so at Michigan State.
"It was amazing," Williams said of campus. "I had never seen a school like this and just fell in love with the place."
She's not kidding. Best was first introduced to Williams at the meet over Memorial Day weekend, convinced her to visit shortly thereafter, and had her signed by the first week of July.
"I think I just got there at the right time when her talents and abilities were just starting to show," said Best, who couldn't believe Williams' diving instructor when he told the Spartan coach that she had only been diving for two years. "No one had really recruited her yet. I guess my timing was just lucky."
Once Williams was lured to East Lansing, she immediately made an impact on the Spartans and in a conference with a historically talented women's diving scene. She earned the team's Freshman of the Year award after setting numerous career highs in events such as the 1-meter (275.77) and 3-meter (435.80). She earned top-10 finishes on both boards at the 2005 Canada Games and was 10th in the 3-meter at Canadian Senior Nationals.
Following her sophomore season, Williams was voted the team's Diver of the Year, having qualified for the NCAA Regional Zone competition and placing sixth and ninth on the 1- and 3-meter boards, respectively, at the Big Ten Championships.
But this past October, something that Williams emphatically described as "very unexpected" occurred. While performing routine dives in practice, Williams says her knees gave out forcing her shoulder to collide with the board.
All the momentum she had built up in her first two years on campus and now suddenly vanished due to an injury that would call for surgery and sideline her for the remainder of the year.
Ironically, the very sport that she almost gave up prior to college was now the reason for redshirting and staying at MSU an extra year.
"It was an extremely difficult decision to make," she said. "I didn't expect to stay for a fifth year in college, so that was stressful to make that decision, but diving was really important to me."
After the surgery, Williams was not allowed to do anything remotely close to diving until late December and was not allowed in the water until the end of January, according to Best.
"She's one that is so aggressive in whatever it is that she wants," he said. "Those kids generally are no good at sitting on the sidelines and watching."
And patience doesn't fit in well with "those kids" either.
Knowing how important it was to keep Williams competing last year, Best felt that the Canadian Senior Nationals would be a good test for her to get back on the board. He says that last May and June were probably the worst months during the rehab process because although Williams was back to diving, she was nowhere near the level she felt she needed to be.
"I had been fully cleared with my shoulder, but I hadn't practiced any of those (tougher) dives for six months," said Williams. "I only had a couple of months to practice those dives and get back into the swing of things, which was tough."
Yet when she was faced with the challenge, she responded with an 11th-place finish, a result which Best called "phenomenal" considering the limited training she had.
"When she's on her game, she is one of the top five or six divers in Canada," he said.
This season Williams is refocused and looking to dive near the top of the conference throughout the season as well as in the postseason. Earlier this year, she earned two Big Ten Diver of the Week awards for her winning performances against Illinois and Ball State. Against the Illini, she posted a 302.40 on the 1-meter board and 321.08 off the 3-meter to win both events.
Williams still feels pain daily in her shoulder and says she is preparing herself to live with it the rest of her life.
"It's not there all the time, just with certain movements of my arm. It hurts most when I am diving," she said. "I don't know if it will ever go away, but I am just trying to deal with it."
And knowing she is still in pain, Best is all the more impressed with his prodigy's efforts this season.
"She has been a pleasant surprise after the surgeries last year," he said. "We didn't know how she was going to be. She's still dealing with a lot of pain in that shoulder, which means the pain often prevents her from doing the number of repetitions she needs to do."
A kinesiology major, who is hoping to find a position in the sports marketing field in the next few years, Williams remains focused on diving and potentially competing for a Big Ten Championship and qualifying for NCAA competition.
But there is, however, one more thing she has her eyes set on, and it's something that she has been thinking about for a very long time.
"Australia," she said. "The first thing I am going to do after graduating is go to Australia."
Good for her.
And since her surgery is now keeping her on campus one more year, perhaps Best can reward Williams by re-routing the annual winter training trip next year to the land down under.
Don't think that option hasn't been brought up.
"I have been trying to get Eric to take us," Williams laughed.
Maybe then, like Best, her timing will be lucky.