The Fearlessness and Positivity of Caylee Waters

Caylee Waters’ midweek routine never wavered during the spring of 2021 — wake up, head to Crossfit Homeward in Chapel Hill for a 6 a.m. workout and then make the trek to Finley Field to take shots from some of the best lacrosse players in the world. 

By 7 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, Waters was in the cage, staring down former North Carolina greats Marie McCool and Emily Parros. With little warming up, she was locked in as McCool threw the kitchen sink at her. 

“I will hit her so hard by accident and she’s like, ‘Ouch!’” McCool remembered. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!’ She said, ‘No. I needed that, Marie. Keep firing shots at me!’ She’s a really rare breed.” 

The U.S. women’s national training team members soon broke into a game — first to six (shots or saves) took the crown. It comes as no surprise that the game got competitive quickly, but Waters never lost her positive attitude. Every time McCool missed a shot, her “opponent” was the first to offer encouragement. 

“Great hustle, Marie!” Waters yelled at her teammate. 

“You’re literally going against me right now,” McCool joked. “You’re just cheering me on. We’re in a competition. What is wrong with you?” 

Waters’ voice, the support she’s bestowed upon her teammates, has reverberated around the fields of Chapel Hill for almost a decade. From her freshman season at North Carolina in 2014 to her training sessions as a professional lacrosse player in 2021, Waters has brought energy and positivity every time she stepped onto a lacrosse field.

The product of Darien, Conn., Waters took a foundation for success and turned it into a blossoming lacrosse career while at North Carolina. She learned how to persevere through the valleys of a lacrosse season. She developed a resilience unlike many in the community.

“She’s someone that will take risks, and she recovers even if she does make mistakes.”

— Cappy Waters

This summer, Waters carried that with her to U.S. women’s national team tryouts and training camp, the Sixes Evaluation Camp at USA Lacrosse headquarters and, eventually, the five-week Athletes Unlimited season in Boyds, Md. She did so while working full-time at Teamworks, an athlete engagement tool used by the national teams. 

She concluded a jam-packed summer slate with a silver medal around her neck, commemorating her second-place finish in the inaugural Athletes Unlimited standings. She battled eventual champion Taylor Cummings in the league’s final game, falling 190 points shy of the three-time Tewaaraton champion. 

“Having this lined up for the summer was unreal,” Waters said of the 2021 summer. “It just felt like a season, and I had been preparing all these months. I was pretty nervous in May, having to balance work with lacrosse, but lacrosse has always been a love of mine and a priority. I was going to do anything I could to make that happen. I’d wake up and play with Marie and it’d be the best part of my day. I’d get that two times a week. Now I get that in a league where there are so many resources around us. It is a dream come true.” 

Almost an hour after the confetti cannons abruptly shot into the air and players finished taking group pictures with current with former teammates, Waters paid a visit to the team that has provided her with the most support. Making the trip from Connecticut were her parents, Cappy and Artie, her aunt and uncle, Amy and Andy Dutter, and her cousin, Jeff Dutter. 

It took a few minutes to wrangle the crew together for a photo, and in the meantime, Cappy Waters spoke to her daughter about what she had just accomplished. 

“I didn’t have to motivate her [this season],” Cappy Waters said. “She’s someone that will take risks, and she recovers even if she does make mistakes. She can take that risk because she believes enough in herself. I don’t mean it in a cocky way, but she knows what her abilities are and how to push it to a point that a lot of people can’t.”  

Cappy and Artie Waters never pushed their only daughter to play any particular sport — although each had a soft spot for diving. Cappy Waters was a diver at Clemson, while Artie Waters dove at Virginia Tech. 

Caylee Waters tried diving and competed until she was a freshman at Darien. However, sports like football, baseball, hockey, tennis, water polo and lacrosse piqued her interest much more than her parents’ pastime.

“I despised diving,” she said. “I just remember early mornings waking up for diving at the crack of dawn and just waiting around. I thought it was boring. What’s the point of this?” 

Although she put her diving days behind her, she found that the lessons learned through the sport stuck with her. There’s something about standing on a diving board meters in the air and then launching yourself toward the water that helps overcome fear. Staring down at the pool helped her prepare for the intimidating, and often isolating, feeling of staring down shooters as a lacrosse goalie.

“Diving helped me kind of individually face the fear,” she said. “I have an appreciation for that now, sometimes just standing in the goal. You’re alone, you're watching the whole game unfold. You’re just up there alone, and you have to make it happen. It's like, ‘OK, you may have missed the first one, but you got to get back up, forget about it and face the next one.” 

Both Cappy and Arty Waters coached their daughter, each at different swim clubs, and noticed she had the traits that allowed her to succeed. 

“Diving is one of those sports that requires a level of fearlessness you can’t teach,” Cappy Waters said. “There’s no way you’re going to fling yourself off a diving board doing three-and-a-half somersaults if something in the back of your mind says, ‘I don’t want to get hurt.’ I knew she had that gift.” 

It didn’t hurt that Waters played sports alongside her brothers, who did not take competition lightly. Peter, Scotty and Robby Waters shot on their sister in the backyard and played a variety of sports with Caylee.

Waters worked her way through lacrosse at Darien and after a late recruiting process, joined Division I North Carolina to play goalie. There, her mental toughness would be tested as the Tar Heels aimed to win the NCAA title. 

By 2015, Waters was named the IWLCA National Goalie of the Year, finishing the season with a .496 save percentage and a 7.84 goals-against average. She and fellow goalie Megan Ward developed a friendship — one that continued even after Waters lost the starting job late in the 2016 season. 

Waters started the first 14 games of the 2016 season, but Ward took over for the run into the NCAA tournament. Losing the starting gig was a setback for Waters, but she never lost faith in Ward and supported her along the way. 

“She was always the loudest person on the sideline cheering,” McCool said. 

On Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, Waters was called upon in the NCAA semifinal against Penn State. Penn State scored five straight first-half goals, leading to Waters getting another chance — she allowed just six goals the rest of the way in a 12-11 win that sent UNC to the national championship game.

“We were on the same page from Day 1,” Waters said. “That has really impacted my experience with lacrosse. Having Megan there supporting me and believing in me knowing that, ‘Hey, we’re there for each other, no matter who is on the field,’ helped me maintain my positive energy.” 

Waters brought that same mentality to U.S. women’s national team tryouts in late 2016, when she competed with the training team. She didn’t make the cut for the 2017 World Cup in England. A veteran of the ups and downs of lacrosse by that point, she used the setback as motivation, working even harder to give herself a chance at the 2021 team. 

After she graduated in 2017, Waters was the first overall pick in the inaugural WPLL draft — her first shot at pro lacrosse. She played for two seasons with the Fire, continuing her love for the game. At the same time, she helped coach goalies for Stanford women’s lacrosse as a volunteer assistant, where she was able to observe the position from afar and absorb more information about her own tendencies. 


As she competed in professional lacrosse and with the U.S. national team under former coach Jenny Levy, Waters remained confident in herself and her teammates. The positivity instilled from her parents at an early age was paying dividends — she just needed to be Caylee Waters, and the rest would sort itself out.

“I asked her all the time, ‘Do you still love playing?’” Cappy Waters said. “‘Just make sure of that.’ You don't have to do something you don’t like to do. She was like, ‘Mom. I really do. I love it. She even said, ‘I wish there was a way I could wake up and truly make it my career.’” 

The past calendar year has provided a glimpse at a potential future career as a lacrosse player. Living in Chapel Hill, Waters trained with McCool, Emily Garrity Parros and other U.S. national team members that came from the Tar Heels program. She also prepared for a U.S. tryout process that has reached its third year. 

By June, Waters was ready for a future that includes the U.S. women’s senior team, a potential U.S. women’s Sixes team and a new role with Athletes Unlimited. She was one of three players to compete in all three disciplines this summer. 

She provided levity during an intense U.S. women’s tryout process, smiling through her helmet while halting shots from the best players in the world. Weeks later, she took up a leadership role during the Sixes evaluation camp, where she was one of the most experienced players on the roster. 

Then, Waters and more than 50 other women’s lacrosse players took the spotlight during the five-week Athletes Unlimited season. She and her teammates were excited for the opportunity but unsure what to expect when playing multiple games each weekend. 

Through a largely unknown process, Waters leaned on the experiences that shaped her. She wasn’t scared when the likes of Cummings, Sam Apuzzo or Kayla Treanor charged toward the cage. She knew when her teammates needed support, and she’d be the first to voice it. 

Most importantly, she knew when it was best to let someone else lead. Waters played through a mentally exhausting Week 1, when she played three straight games in the cage, including a noon game after a 7 p.m. game the night before. 

She told her fellow goalie, Amber Hill, after the game that she should have taken herself out. She trusted Hill to do the job, and she needed to understand that when she wasn’t at her best, her teammate was there to step in. 

“That’s where I think about what Megan Ward had done,” Waters said. “I was fighting myself at not taking that step and doing that. I had never done that before. After I spoke with Amber, it helped change my mindset to, ‘Hey, these games can be exhausting, but the field players take themselves off when they’re tired.’ It was a recharge. Once I did it once, and Britt Brown came in, it made it so much easier to do it again any time I needed it.” 

The prevailing traits that describe Waters at this point in her career are the same that helped her become a professional lacrosse player — positivity, fearlessness and a passion for her teammates. 

This summer, Waters’ personality shined brightly, and the game of lacrosse has benefitted. At halftime during a Week 4 game, Waters found McCool on the sideline. Both were wearing blue as part of Team Cummings, and Waters knew her friend needed a boost.  

“You’re Marie McCool,” she said, putting her arm around her teammate’s shoulder. “You got this. Keep working hard. You don’t know how happy I am to be wearing this color with you again.”