The way Adam Wright tells it, everything he has learned about the sport of water polo starts and ends with training.
As a water polo coach, he talks about it. He knows training renews focus in a team ““ like his 2009 UCLA team, which reached the NCAA Championship game after changing its training regimen.
As a water polo player, he talks about it. He still works out every day, all for one goal he has yet to accomplish.
From the local pools of Long Beach to the massive aquatic complexes of Europe, Wright has traveled the world studying the sport he loves.
Today, he finds himself passing on that knowledge. The 33-year-old coach of UCLA’s men’s water polo team, now in his second year at the helm, has the complete respect of everyone on the pool deck. He’s the ultimate player’s coach because he’s still a player refusing to give up his dreams of winning a gold medal.
He still maintains two roles in his life: student in the pool, teacher on the pool deck.
“This is my life,” Wright said. “I don’t know anything besides water polo. This is what I want, and this is the message I want to pass.”
Wright came to UCLA determined to check items off a small list of five goals he made as a teenager.
He left UCLA with three in the bag: a CIF Championship, a degree from a top school and an NCAA Championship ““ two titles, in fact.
Still left was making the U.S. national team and winning a gold medal.
Even while in Westwood, Wright had one foot in the door with the national team. He continued his pursuit immediately after he graduated, but the four years of training resulted in a disappointing seventh-place finish for the U.S. at the 2004 Summer Olympics.
That left him looking for a new challenge in the next four years.
Europe, the continent that embraces the sport of water polo unlike any other, came calling.
In Russia and Italy, he found out first-hand how the Europeans treated their professional athletes: massive arenas, televised games, doctors at your calling on the pool deck and more.
“I’m totally content and happy here (at UCLA), but it’s a life that’s hard not to miss, because you train, you eat, you sleep, you train and they take care of you, which is unusual for our sport.”
But Wright never lost sight of the big picture while he was in Europe.
As he competed at the highest level and made improvements to his game, so did the U.S. team, and it showed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A veteran presence, something noticeably absent in Athens, Wright led the Americans to the gold medal game, but they fell short against Hungary, who repeated as champions.
Once again, Wright was left with a bitter taste in his mouth, but he still refuses to let it disappoint him.
“They were the better team,” Wright said. “But that’s what the challenge is now, is coming back and training and (being) committed to it.”
He’s been ready to do one better ever since he got back from Beijing. But along the way came an offer that had him thinking about more than just his playing career.
Kerry Wright knows her husband isn’t just a student of the game; she says he’s also an astute note-taker.
“He would go to practice, and after each practice write down every single workout,” Kerry said. “He just wanted to have them. I guess he always knew he was going to coach. He’s got I don’t even know how many notebooks now, where he writes down every single workout.”
Adam Wright has really been taking notes throughout his life, whether mentally or in a notebook.
He talks about Klaus Barth, his childhood coach in Long Beach, and how Barth taught him to never give up. He still reveres Rako Rudic, the U.S. national team coach before the Athens Olympics, for how he stayed committed to the team through thick and thin.
He got to witness first-hand the ascent of Adam Krikorian from a UCLA player to an all-time great coach.
Adam Wright has always wanted to be a coach, which is why Krikorian presented him the opportunity to join his staff as an assistant at the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics. Wright jumped, but not without some hesitation.
“It was hard to come back from Europe and leave that life, and leave it when I was still kind of in my prime,” he admitted.
A year later, Krikorian decided to move on to the U.S. Women’s National Team. It wasn’t hard for him to handpick Wright as his successor.
“He was always a coach in the water,” Krikorian said. “He was always a great leader, always had a knack for the game, a great vision for the game and a great passion for the game.”
Wright has memorized the ways of all of the coaches he admires, from Barth, to Rudic, to Krikorian, to John Vargas, Terry Schroeder, Robert Lynn and all of his coaches in Europe. Their mantras ring loudly on the pool deck of Spieker Aquatics Center.
“I’ve just been very fortunate with people I’ve been surrounded by,” Wright said.
Blurring the line
As Wright has moved up to become a senior member of the U.S. national team, he’s witnessed some of his UCLA players filling in the spots of departed veterans.
Enter Ben Hohl, UCLA’s senior attacker and one of the brightest young stars in American water polo. The lefty has ascended to the U.S. national team as Wright’s teammate. And they both happen to play similar positions in the pool.
At practices at Spieker, it’s clear that Wright nags on Hohl, nitpicking at every little thing he might do wrong. But Hohl has no problem with that.
“He definitely harps on me, and it’s because I know he has big expectations for me,” Hohl said.
“He’s seeing a lot of the exact same situations that I have seen … so I’m sure he has a little bit more insight than a traditional coach will have.”
Wright is respected because he knows exactly how to motivate.
Oftentimes he’ll even jump in the water with his guys, be it for a swim set or a drill. As soon as he’s done, he jumps right out, coaching from the deck, Speedo and all.
“We’ll be swimming out here, and he’ll be on our ass, like, “˜You guys aren’t swimming fast enough.’ And we could just be like, “˜Oh yeah, well why don’t you come in here and do it?’” said redshirt senior center Jacob Murphy, another player who has become Wright’s teammate on the national team. “But he would probably kick our ass.”
It’s all a part of Wright’s plan. The man who doubles as a student and a teacher knows that the end of his playing career probably comes at the London Olympics in 2012, with his last shot at the gold medal on the line.
“Could I play until I’m 40? I think I could do it. Is it going to be hard to stop at 35? Absolutely.”
But Wright is already grooming the next generation. Regardless of whether or not he passes his final test in London, his success will be vital to Bruins for years to come.