ZEPHYRHILLS — Zephyrhills filled its wrestling coach position just before this season, hiring a former high school and collegiate wrestler with more than 30 years of coaching experience.
Randy Light, 54, brought energy and hope to a program that had been orphaned for several months, but that's not all Light brought. With him came his son, Daniel, 27, as an assistant.
Daniel was an accomplished lightweight wrestler for St. Edwards, an elite program at a private school in Lakewood, Ohio. Since 1959, St. Edwards has won 29 Division 1 state championships (a state record) and 11 national titles. Daniel was 35-5 as a seventh-grader and 56-7 as an eighth-grader.
"It's a testament to Daniel's character and perseverance having the courage to wrestle in what was a huge disadvantage for him," St. Edwards coach Greg Urbas said.
Daniel Light is blind. In first grade, he and his parents began to notice vision problems. By the third grade, Daniel was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, a degenerative disease that affects the retina, causing loss of color perception, sensitivity to light and eventually loss of central vision and blindness.
By the time Daniel was 12 and getting serious about wrestling, his loss of vision was complete.
But through St. Edwards, Daniel had met U.S. Olympic women's wrestling coach Tadaaki Hatta, who helped him adapt by feel. Daniel was a quick learner. "He worked so hard, it's unreal," Urbas said.
But as a freshman, his feelings toward the sport changed.
"Wrestling for one of the best teams in the country — every day going against kids that were state champions — it took its toll on me," Daniel said. "I didn't step back onto a mat until I was 19."
Daniel's return to the sport was in a coaching capacity, when father Randy started coaching a middle school program in Ohio, and Daniel mentored the elementary-school-aged wrestlers.
Eventually the family came Florida, where Daniel is working with older wrestlers now.
"Those improvements they make every day makes you feel good," Daniel said. "I enjoy watching them grow as wrestlers."
"He is the toughest guy I've ever wrestled," said junior Josiah Gyngard, a 152-pounder who does a fan demonstration with Daniel during Bulldog meets that breaks down moves and how points are scored. "It's hard to imagine how he does it. He's a great coach, too."
Daniel also coaches from the bench, fed information about the action on the mat from 138-pounder Trevor Lincoln.
"Coach (Randy Light) showed me what to do, whenever there's a neck or an arm bar; the main points, I'll whisper it to (Daniel)," Lincoln said.
Daniel then shouts out countermoves and encouragement.
In the addition to the challenge of helping rebuild the Bulldogs program, Daniel also seeks out challenges for himself. He took up crafting clay on a potter's wheel.
"I know I made the right choice every time I look back," Daniel said. "I've found my art, but it's nice to be able to pass knowledge on to kids and make them realize that no matter the obstacle they can overcome it; I love to show them."