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SIOUX CITY | Three weeks after Alex Watters first enrolled in Morningside College in 2004, he returned to Sioux City in the bay of a life-flight helicopter, unconscious, en route to Mercy Medical Center for emergency spinal surgery.

While visiting friends and family in Okoboji, Watters had been involved in a diving accident that damaged two of his vertebrae and pinched his spinal cord.

A week ago, more than 12 years after the life-changing injury that paralyzed him from the chest down, the now-city councilman cited the support he received from the city during the difficult times that followed as a driving force behind his community involvement.

"They picked me up when I was at my probably lowest point, so I'm excited to hopefully return that favor," he said, addressing a packed Council Chamber. 

Watters, 30, took his oath of office Feb. 27 as the council's appointee to fill the remaining 10 months of the term of Councilman Keith Radig, who resigned in January to join the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors. 

In appointing Watters, council members have said they value having a younger voice with an eye trained on the long-term future of Sioux City.

Watters, who hasn't let the significant loss of mobility 12 years ago define him, says he's looking to leave a long-term impression on the city that's made so much of an impression on him.

Watters grew up in Ocheyedan, Iowa, where his father, Mitch Watters, served for four years as Osceola County sheriff and a volunteer firefighter. His family moved to the Okoboji area when he was in eighth grade. Mitch Watters now serves on the Arnolds Park City Council. 

Alex Watters' earliest hint of political ambition surfaced while door-knocking for his father's county sheriff campaigns and later handing out buttons in parades for Democratic District 6 Rep. Greg Stevens, who coached his high school debate team.

He would later serve as a page in the state legislature, where he remembers being frustrated at the lack of cooperation between the two political parties. 

After weighing college options, including Drake University's law program, Watters set his sights on Morningside, where he had received a golf scholarship. Dreaming of owning his own golf course some day, he entered the business program. 

Three weeks later, life changed. 

Watters joined some college friends on a trip back to Okoboji for one of their family reunions. Around midnight on Sept. 11, 2004, Watters was walking on a dock about to go swimming when his hat fell into the water. Watters dove in after it.

But he had misjudged the water's depth, which was only 18 inches. 

"I remember hearing my neck snap," he said. "I was like, 'I can't move. You've got to start swimming, you've really got to swim.' And I just wasn't swimming."

Watters said he eventually went black. His friends retrieved him from the water and called an ambulance. The next thing he knew, he was on his way to Dickinson County Hospital. When he regained consciousness a second time, he was being air-lifted to Mercy Medical Center -- Sioux City.

The injury turned out to be a C5 and C6 vertebrae break that had pinched his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic, with no feeling from the mid-chest down and limited control of his finger movements. 

"I think the C5-C6 area is the most unique," Watters explained in an interview Thursday. "Any higher and you have no arms. Any lower and you have probably most of your arms, if not all of them."

Using his wrists to demonstrate, he said the injury gives him feeling and control of the top side of his arm but not the bottom. 

"I can go like this," he said, flexing his wrist upward, "but if I flip my wrist, I can't bring it up to save my life."

In Sioux City, Watters underwent surgery to fuse and stabilize the vertebrae. After two weeks at the hospital, Watters went to Colorado to the Craig Institute for six months of rehabilitation.

"Craig Hospital changed my life," he said. "It made me feel like I'm not alone in this."

Specialists there told him that his surgeon -- Dr. Quentin Durward, who still practices in Dakota Dunes -- had done a quality job that not every surgeon could. 

During his stays at Mercy and the Craig Institute, which were emotionally and physically taxing times, he remembers friends and community members coming to visit him. "They were incredible," he said. 

Watters returned home in April and that fall returned to Morningside College. With his ability to golf gone, the dream of owning a golf course lost its luster. After his interest in politics was piqued again in a political science class, he decided to switch his focus. 

He later interned with the Department of Education, working for three months with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and making several D.C. connections. 

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science, Watters attended Creighton University in Omaha to study negotiation and conflict resolution. He said knowing that friends were at the time fighting in Iraq made him interested in pursuing the degree with an emphasis on the Middle East.  

Watters returned to Sioux City in 2012 to serve as field organizer for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. He would later work with the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino -- Sioux City's successful bid to win a state gaming license.

It was after that when he took the job with Morningside, turning down a job offer to work on an outreach team at the White House.

"Sioux City was always there for me and Morningside was always there for me, so anything I can do to provide for those two entities I want to do," he said.

Watters has been active with several local organizations, including the Sioux City Growth Organization and Events Facilities Advisory Board. In 2014, Watters won the primary to run as a Democrat for the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors, but ultimately lost to Republican Matthew Ung, who now serves as the board's chairman.

Watters tossed his hat in for City Council in January as one of 14 applicants -- four of them former council members -- vying for the appointment. He said he plans to run again when it's back up for re-election in November.

Looking ahead to his next 10 months on the council, Watters said he wants to support economic development, support city workers and help the city move toward the goal of bringing more young professionals to the city. 

"If we want to go that direction, then we need to have more of those people at the table, and I feel that’s what I’m providing," he said.

Watters said some of his main goals include bringing more cohesiveness to the downtown area, building on both the old and new businesses that populate the area, while filling the empty spaces. 

"I lived in Omaha. I know what the Old Market feels like and why people want to be there. I've been to Des Moines countless times in the last year -- I know why the East Village is blowing up. And I know why Sioux Falls has such a big downtown feel as well," he said. "We have a huge downtown with a lot of empty building spaces, and we can find ways to incentivize businesses to come here," he said.

Watters also stressed the importance of adding and connecting trails and advertising the "diamonds in the rough" that Sioux City has to offer. 

"We can experience greater growth than some of these cities that we're competing with are experiencing," he said.

Watters said his first week on the council has been a whirlwind of meetings with city staff and council members. While he is taking the new position in stride, he still feels the fresh excitement.

At the end of his Thursday interview, Watters recalled his father's reaction on Feb. 21 when he first called to tell him the news of his appointment.

"He goes, 'Congratulations, Councilman Watters.' And I said, 'Thank you, Councilman Watters.' ... I just thought, 'How cool is that?'"


City hall reporter

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