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Showing Renewed Resolve

In remembrance of his stepbrother, Klatt rededicates himself to water polo

July 02, 2002|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inspiration often comes from unexpected sources. In the case of Dan Klatt, a member of the U.S. national men's water polo team, the desire to succeed was refueled last summer by the death of his 10-year-old stepbrother.

Skyler Hafen was killed in an off-road motorcycle accident while visiting his father in Utah, leaving Klatt devastated and vulnerable. Suddenly, he had to reconsider his future. Should he continue feeding his dreams of playing for world titles? Or go back home to Clovis, where he would be close to his family?

In the days after the accident, Klatt received strong support from teammates and coaches, prompting him to rededicate his life to a role Skyler had so cherished, he wore Klatt's No. 9 on his own athletic uniforms.

"Skyler wanted to see me play on the national team," said Klatt, 23. "Obviously, that will never happen, but he's motivating me to stay with it, to get better all the time."

Klatt, who joined the national team in April 2001, will be back in the pool Thursday against Russia in a FINA World Water Polo League game at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Center. The U.S. is using its league games to prepare for the World Championships Aug. 20-25 in Yugoslavia. The U.S. will be host to the Russians again Saturday, then travel overseas to play six games between July 12-21. After the U.S. plays 2000 Olympic champion Hungary July 26-27 in Moraga, the two teams with the best records from the four-team U.S. bracket will advance to the league Super Final in Patras, Greece, in early August when they will compete with two teams from another bracket for $100,000.

Against Russia, Klatt, a former UC Irvine star, will be counted on to use his 6-foot-5, 200-pound body to interrupt the Russians' powerful two-meter game. His play has become a key link in the retooling project of U.S. Coach Ratko Rudic, who assumed duties shortly after the team's sixth-place finish at the 2000 Games. Only three players remain from that squad, leaving an untested but talented group.

Klatt is one of the newcomers, but he has played like a national team veteran. His main responsibility is defending in the two-meter area, a position closest to the cage, where the offensive team's most dangerous scorer can usually be found. His contributions on offense usually are made when the U.S. enjoys the man-advantage, as was evident when he scored two six-on-five goals in the third quarter Friday against Croatia, helping the U.S. to a 15-13 victory in the league opener.

"He's a role player," said goalkeeper Genai Kerr said. "He's able to pick up and do the jobs that other people aren't necessarily the best at. Whether it's swimming [from one end of the pool to the other], defending two meters or drawing ejections, he does all the dirty work."

Those contributions have been invaluable to the team, but they've paled in comparison to what he has received from Rudic and his teammates in the days since Skyler's death.

Klatt was in Croatia with the U.S. team when he received an early morning call informing him of the accident. He immediately sought out Rudic, a man he uses as a model for his own coaching career. Together, they sat for the next four hours, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Klatt had to wait three days before he could get a flight home to Clovis, but his teammates stayed close by.

"We were his family," Kerr said. "We were his brothers."

After the funeral, Klatt got into his car and headed back to his job as girls' water polo co-coach at Santa Ana Foothill High. The day was Sept. 11. An already somber trip became almost unbearable with the news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. His mood lifted somewhat when he arrived on campus and was greeted with more support from players and staff.

"They all rallied around me," he said. "They kept me from dwelling."

Klatt said his coaching responsibilities kept his mind occupied, gave him a reason to leave home in the morning and to get to sleep early at night. He was rewarded when the Knights won their third consecutive Southern Section Division I championship, cementing the title with an 8-0 victory over rival Santa Margarita.

"I've never watched a video more than that one," said Klatt, who shares water polo coaching duties with Dave Mikesell.

But even that successful season was accompanied by a painful lesson. Foothill had to forfeit a game to Newport Harbor because Klatt had ventured onto school grounds while under suspension for the game after receiving a red card in a previous junior varsity contest.

The forfeit ended a 38-game winning streak for the Knights, prompting Klatt to offer the team his resignation. The girls quickly refused, but the heartfelt gesture showed Klatt's belief in a team-first, individual-second attitude.

"An individual act cost the team," said Klatt, a third-team All-American as a junior at UC Irvine in 1998 and second team in 2000. "An individual does not have that right or power."

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