Cameron Daniels began swimming competitively in first grade at six years old - but a developmental condition in his Achilles tendons threatened to take him out of the water.
Mark and Mary Jane, Cameron's parents, were concerned with their son's unusual walking motion, literally always on his toes. After a year of waiting, and watching, a doctor at Shriner's Hospital in Pittsburgh suggested serial casts for six weeks to help the chronic condition known as "Heel Cords." The casts could possibly unlock the elastic potential of those tendons on the back of each foot, which had been keeping his feet from bending and his toes always down, away from the shins.
The casts were temporary, and so was the fix.
Photo submitted to the Times Observer
Warren Area High School senior Cameron Daniels, front, with from left in back, his high school swim coach Jeff Walters and parents MaryJane Daniels and Mark Daniels, will swim at Division II Gannon University in the fall.
At age 10, four years after Mary Jane suggested swimming, and started her son's love affair with the sport, she would have to take her son back to Shriner's Hospital for surgery on both legs. The sheaths around the Achilles tendons were cut, and Cameron was put in casts for another four weeks.
"My legs were so weak I had to use crutches for two weeks to walk around," said Cameron. "My dad took me to the YMCA to swim after I got my casts off... my legs were too weak, and I wasn't able to kick to keep myself above water. My parents cried because they thought they had made a horrible decision about having the surgery done on my legs."
In a complete flip-turn, Cameron qualified for YMCA district and state swim meets that same year.
As the Warren Area High School senior plans his future after graduation, he has multiple swim records to his name, including the 200-meter freestyle and 200 medley relay at the Warren YMCA, the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays for Warren Area High school, the 200 freestyle relay records at both the Corry and Titusville YMCA's, and the record in Westfield, N.Y., for the 25-yard freestyle as a youth.
"There have been times when I've wanted to do different things," said Cameron. "On the weekends, it's, 'I have to go to a swim meet.... I have to practice instead of party.' It's always a toss up of what your responsibilities are and, for me, swimming has always been first. I went to practice every night and was able to strengthen my legs, so that I could continue to compete on the YMCA team."
Cameron-who swam this year for the YMCA, Warren Area High School, and USA Niagara Swimming-has signed a letter of intent with Division II Gannon University, where he plans to pursue a degree in computer sciences, and continue his passion for competitive swimming.
"It's an exciting time, said Mary Jane Daniels, Cameron's mother. "He has worked really hard and we've looked at a lot of colleges. We looked at the education first, obviously, and what Cameron wanted. Gannon is relatively close to home; if we want to go to his meets, we can certainly still do that."
Cameron's coach his senior season at Warren Area High School, Jeff Walters, has a nephew, Nathan, who coaches at Gannon, and it was the perfect fit according the Cameron.
"When I was first in contact with Nathan, he was very open," Cameron said. "I talked to him and stayed for a bit at the university with some of his swimmers. He had his coaching figured out, he's established as a great coach... I would have went to Gannon either way. I liked it, everything about it. But, swimming was part of the decision and it was a great commitment. It could take me to do better things in my life. I'm going to get a degree, make something of myself."
Swimming has helped unlock that dream for Cameron, who once couldn't find a sport he enjoyed.
"I tried baseball," Cameron said. "I tried basketball. I was never really a runner. It wasn't my thing. When I tried swimming, I loved it. I've been swimming since I was six, and I've enjoyed every second of it. I've put a lot of time into it, and it's taught me discipline, you know. Disciplined is number one. If you're going to be lazy about it, then it's not going to take you anywhere. If you want to stay with it, then you can't skip things."
Cameron hasn't skipped anything during his swimming career. His childhood involved nightly drives out of town, to bigger pools in Titusville, or the New York circuits. He has swam at Olympic development sights like SPIRE Institute near Geneva, Ohio.
"Three days a week, we are committed to driving to Pitt-Bradford," said Mark Daniels, who is also a PIAA swimming referee. "He has individual times at the Erie County Community College, Cheektowaga, Niagara Falls, Brocton, and he's raced at championship meets in Ithaca, N.Y."
Despite years of constant competitions, including a national championship in Indianapolis this July, Mark can see the raw potential his son still has to offer Gannon.
"The limitations of the program we have here in Warren, which the coach knows about, gives Cameron a lot of room to grow with more pool time," said Mark Daniels. "McDowell and Prep have facilities where they can practice twice a day. His potential with that kind of training is exciting for the coaches because he already has times that would score Gannon points in their PSAC meets."
For Cameron, going to Gannon and continuing his swimming career is another exciting step in a journey that is far from over.
"In the first year that I started swimming, I won a lot," he said. "I won my first race ever, but it wasn't until sectionals after all the dual meets and individuals that I realized I was part of a bigger thing. This year, my senior year, I really took it to a different level competitively. I enjoyed it. I thought, it's my last year, let's go out with a bang."