LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Out of the pool, UCLA goalie Garrett Danner doesn’t look like the prototypical water polo net minder.
By goalie standards he is short, 6-foot-1 and he lacks the broad wingspan of many of his contemporaries.
Compare him to the other three goalies at the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships at Canyonview Aquatic Center on the campus of UC San Diego and he comes up, well, short.
What Danner lacks in size he definitely makes up for in a technique that UCLA coach Adam Wright describes as unique and special.
“Obviously he’s not the tallest goalie but I’ve never seen anyone with quicker reactions,” Wright said. “Those reactions make up for the size.”
Wright knew he had something special with Danner but didn’t know how phenomenal his young goalie's talent was until a summer game in Russia.
“He was a redshirt and we were playing at the World University Games,” Wright said. “The opposing team had a two-on-none coming down the pool and I am watching Garrett and I am watching him work. And literally his kneecaps were out of the water. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
It is a technique that seems more like a God-given talent than something a coach could teach.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Wright said. “The leg generation that he’s able to create, the leg velocity is something I’ve never seen. He’s a freak. You don’t find too many athletes like that.”
Danner has been doing more with less since he was introduced to the position as an 11-year-old, a position he wanted to play but was steered away from.
“I started playing field and really didn’t enjoy it that much and then my coach saw us playing water polo for fun and I was playing goalie and he said, 'Hey you looked pretty good in the cage, why don’t you try playing it?' ” Danner said. “My parents didn’t want me to because they didn’t want me to be pigeonholed at the goalie position but I always wanted to so I jumped in and ever since then I’ve been playing goalie.”
It is surprising he didn’t take up the position sooner considering it came naturally and he played it in other sports, despite the inherent danger.
“I played goalie in hockey and soccer and I always liked the position,” Danner said. “I don’t really think about the balls coming at me. It always sucks getting hit in the face with a ball but it’s not too bad. It stings a little bit, but it’s ok.”
The risk seems to appeal to Danner, as does the pressure.
“I always liked the pressure and the ability to step up and make key saves in the game,” Danner said. “I feel like I play well under pressure and at the goalie position you get a lot of it.”
It is yet another quality that Wright admires in Danner.
“He’s hyper competitive, that’s the first thing that attracted me to him,” Wright said. “You can’t measure a heart. He’s his own harshest critic. He takes the blame for everything. He’s the backbone of our team on defense. His heart, you watch how he moves in the water and it’s incredible. You can see his heart and how competitive he is every time he plays.”
Despite those skills there are some that doubted his ability because of his physical limitations.
“He was [a] highly recruited kid but there were some that maybe shied away from him because of his size,” Wright said. “I know on the national level on the junior team that has been a constant question. For somebody who’s seen it and played at the highest level, I know he can do it.”
Danner has confidence in his ability, but it is understated and there is no danger of it becoming arrogance.
“I owe a lot of my success to my defense,” Danner said. “We really take pride in our defensive aspect of our game. They really limit teams to low percentage shots. When they let up high percentage shot they always seem to take a side of the cage for me with a field block. They really do make my job easier.”
The most amazing thing to Wright is not his size, but his age. He still has two more years in goal for the Bruins.
“The reality is he’s only a sophomore,” Wright said. “He has time to grow and mature and the leadership skills he has will only get better. It’s going to be pretty scary where he goes in two years.”