EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Mason McDaniel said his objective was to do his best during the Junior Pan American Wrestling Championships that ended June 11 in Lima, Peru.
The SIUE redshirt freshman achieved his goal in a golden way. He finished first in the 74-kilogram class (163 pounds) during the Freestyle competition to grab the gold medal. McDaniel won all four of his matches, including a 10-0 tech fall victory over Johnathon Michaelis of Canada in the finals. Three of his wins came via falls.
"It feels good to win and exciting to represent our country," said McDaniel, 19, a former high school state champion (2015) at Edmonds-Woodway High in Kirkland, Wash. "It has been pretty cool and I didn't think it was that big of a deal, but it has been all over social media."
McDaniel was a four-time state prep placer and three-year captain while amassing 103 wins. Mason, the son of Kevin and Brook McDaniel, also was a standout prep athlete in football and track. He qualified for this year's Junior Pan-Ams by placing in the top three at the United World Wrestling Junior Greco National Championship at Las Vegas in April.
"Winning in the Pan-Am is different than winning the high school state championship," McDaniel said. "I always wanted to be a high school state champion. I didn't have a goal to be a Pan-American champion."
Yet once McDaniel got going in the high-profile South America competition, he sought the gold. SIUE Head Wrestling coach Jeremy Spates said McDaniel went all-out in the Pan-Am matches.
"It's the best I've seen him wrestle," Spates said. "He was really sharp and winning the gold will be a stepping stone for him. It was really exciting to see and pretty special for him."
McDaniel said he had ample motivation in the Freestyle competition. He went 1-1 in the Greco Roman wrestling prior to the Freestyle competition and that didn't suit him.
"I put too much pressure on myself," he said of the Greco-Roman action. "I wanted to do better and knew I could do better."
So McDaniel took a different approach for the Freestyle wrestling. His mindset changed.
"I came out more relaxed in Freestyle," McDaniel said. "I told myself I was just going to go out and wrestle, and not worry about winning and losing."
It worked. He pinned his first opponent in less than minute, scored a 7-4 decision in his next match and then dropped foe Julio Rafael Rodriguez Romero of the Dominican Republic in 1 minute, 30 seconds to advance to the title match.
"I think the win in the semifinal match was really big for me," McDaniel said. "I caught him and then pinned him."
He rolled to any easy win in the championship match and celebrated in style. Overall, the U.S. team snared three gold medals and secured the team title. McDaniel said the Peruvian experience was something he will never forget.
"It's so different there and the people there live differently than we do," McDaniel said. "The people are like us, but I couldn't really communicate with them because they were speaking a different language. It makes you appreciate what you have at home."
Spates appreciates what McDaniel did in Peru and what he could do as a Cougar once the season unfolds this winter. SIUE is a member of the Southern Conference for 2017-18, but will join the high-powered Mid-American Conference. The MAC field will include nine schools, including Missouri, and Old Dominion, which compete in different conferences for other sports.
"Mason wrestled really well against some very good competition in the Pan-Am Championships," Spates said. "He's a very aggressive wrestler and he goes hard at it right from the opening whistle. He can dictate the pace of the match. Mason is very strong physically and that's one of his strengths."
McDaniel likely will wrestle for SIUE at 165 pounds, the weight class he trained at during his redshirt-freshman season.
"A lot of freshmen are red-shirted in wrestling," Spates said. "You see it more in wrestling than in some other sports. Maturity is a big factor in doing it. The majority of the freshmen college wrestlers are red-shirted."
Now that McDaniel has gotten a taste of college life and the wrestling scene at SIUE, he can build on that, Spates said.
"We are expecting good things from Mason," Spates said. "We expect him to be a big contributor for us."
That sounds good to McDaniel. He can't wait to officially start wrestling in the 2017-18 season for the Cougars.
"It was tough last year because I had to stay focused all the time when I wasn't competing," McDaniel said. "But I think winning this (Pan-Am) championship will help push me at SIUE. I'm dying to get back on the mats."
The Cougars are welcoming him with open arms and McDaniel intends to add his talents for a program on the rise. Restore the Glory is the Cougars' anthem. SIUE captured NCAA Division II championships from 1984-86. The Cougars have participated at the Division I level since the 2008-09 season.
"When I was in high school, I saw the potential of this program and the good atmosphere here," McDaniel said. "And I wanted to be part of it."
He added, "I'm so excited about this program. We can do great things. We have a lot of tough wrestlers, so I think we will be good. I'm excited about our future."