High School Sports

‘He’s the pulse of our team.’ But then this Ceres High wrestler’s heart stopped

A Ceres wrestler's heart-stopping victory

“Nobody wants to die, but if you can’t do what you love, then what’s the point? I love to wrestle. It’s my passion, so it’s something I have to do." Daniel McElwain
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“Nobody wants to die, but if you can’t do what you love, then what’s the point? I love to wrestle. It’s my passion, so it’s something I have to do." Daniel McElwain

Daniel McElwain spun Brendan Tallent onto his back, pinning one of the state’s top upper-weight wrestlers before a championship crowd had even settled into their seats.

McElwain, an embattled 18-year-old Ceres High senior, pinned the Pitman star in less than two minutes, completing a decisive run through last weekend’s Ceres High Varsity Wrestling Tournament.

McElwain sprang to his feet, pointing his fingers and eyes toward the rafters. Toward the heavens.

After dying in a hospital recovery room following knee surgery in June of 2016 – yes, dying – McElwain appreciates every blessing. Like wrestling. His return to the spotlight is a story of passion, perseverance and heartache.

McElwain has a heart disease — atrial fibrillation, which puts him at an increased risk of stroke, blood clots and death. His heart beats irregularly and, at times, chaotically. Sometimes, like it did twice last year, it stops altogether.

“The hard work this kid must have done to be cleared to play sports again is just incredible,” said wrestling coach Steve Festa, now in his 11th season at Ceres. “He wasn’t going to miss his senior year. He passed on football and said, ‘Coach, I love wrestling. It’s my passion and I want to be 100 percent.’ ”

McElwain never will be 100 percent, though.

With his weakened ticker, he stares down death each time he takes the mat.

Since flat-lining in the recovery room, McElwain has required a defibrillator’s shock three times to regulate his heartbeat. On one occasion, doctors had to stop his heart to regain control of the rhythm.

“Nobody wants to die,” McElwain said, “but if you can’t do what you love, then what’s the point? I love to wrestle. It’s my passion, so it’s something I have to do.

“With my heart, I know my limitations. I’m very confident as long as I keep putting in the work I’ll achieve great things.”

McElwain always knew there was something wrong with his heart, but doctors struggled to diagnose the problem. It took a football injury to bring everything into focus.

“We knew something was wrong, but could never catch it,” McElwain said. “ ... Until the knee surgery.”

In June of 2016, McElwain tore all the ligaments in his left knee during a football scrimmage with Enochs. He stepped in a hole, destroying his knee.

McElwain said he was conscious during the hours-long surgery and awake as the last breath left his chest.

He can remember with vivid clarity the dramatic hospital scene. Fresh stitches closing the wound on his knee. Nurses scrambling around the room. Doctors shifting their focus from his knee to his heart. The tightness in his chest, and the sudden THUD!

Doctors used a defibrillator from a crash cart to restart McElwain’s heart.

“I was awake the whole time. It was really scary,” he said. “I was freaking out and the whole time my heart was racing. When my heart stopped, I couldn’t breathe. I remember gasping for air and hearing them say, ‘Clear!’

“It was like getting punched in the chest by someone in the UFC. It was intense.”

McElwain had been out of surgery for five minutes when his heart began to race and doctors decided to use a medicinal injection to stop and regain control of his heart. His mother, Monica McElwain, was understandably overwhelmed.

“I freaked out. They said we have to stop his heart; this is how we’re going to reset it,” she said. “I fell to the floor. I was in such hysterics. They had to get a team for me. All I could think about was what if they can’t bring him back?”

Festa and the Bulldog wrestling family were shaken by the news. McElwain was one of the program’s rising stars. He had qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Tournament as a sophomore.

“It was so surreal,” said Festa, who has coached McElwain the last six years, beginning with the Ceres Pups and Mae Hensley Warriors. “He was going in for knee surgery and then it was like, ‘What the heck? He’s dying on the operating table of a heart attack?’

“Instantly, our whole wrestling family, we took turns going to his house, taking food and fun stuff to him. We rallied around him. He has a lot to live for.”

McElwain missed his entire junior year, but remained a central figure on a historic postseason push. The Bulldogs were unbeaten in the Western Athletic Conference duals and captured their first Sac-Joaquin Section team championship since 1995.

McElwain served as an assistant, coordinating the Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning program.

“I gave each of the wrestlers the incentive to earn a championship ring,” Festa said. “The team voted to give him a championship ring, too. He was there everyday and totally positive. On the mat and off the mat, this kid has the greatest attitude. He is the pulse of our team.

“It was the motivation he gave the rest of the guys. It wasn’t so much ‘Do it for Daniel,’ but ‘Hell, if he’s fighting this hard, we have to fight this hard.’ He was a big part of our team and a leader by example.”

Today, he leads from the front line. Not the sideline.

“If I could wrap the kid in bubble wrap, I would,” his mother said. “Wrestling is what he’s passionate about. If I take that away, I’ve taken too much of him. I pray about it, definitely, and I’m always on him to stay hydrated and to eat the right things. I’m more ‘Mama Bear,’ more protective of him now.”

McElwain turned heads with his season-opening performance at the Ceres tournament, where he earned the Outstanding Upper Weight award. He pinned all four opponents in less than 2 minutes: Ramsey Ferrer of Central Catholic, 48 seconds; Kyle Lee of El Capitan, 1:38; second-seeded Ben Allen of Chico, 1:47; and Tallent, 1:53.

“No one is going to stop me,” McElwain told Festa. “This one is mine.”

Tallent was ranked No.

8 in the state at 195 pounds in The California Wrestler’s preseason poll. He qualified for the CIF State Meet last winter at 195s.

“From everything he battled to where he’s at now ... he’s my rock star,” Monica said, wiping away tears. “He deserves this.”

From heart attack to a heart-stopping win, McElwain hopes his story finishes on a podium at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. Only three wrestlers in program history have medaled at State, including champion Charlie Davis in 1998, runner-up Bill Reiz in 1995, and Jon Nowicki, who was eighth in 1999.

Their names hang on a banner in the wrestling room.

“I’d like to be on that banner in the wrestling room,” McElwain said. “I want my name to be remembered at Ceres High.”