First stop, Guadalajara, Mexico. Next stop, London.
This past week, the U.S. Men’s National Water Polo team won the gold medal at the Pan American Games in GuadalajaraÂ ““ but this gold medal pales in comparison to the meaning behind it. It was the United States’ ticket to the 2012 Olympics.
The Bruins had a vested interest in the match, as the team has a familiar face on it: UCLA men’s water polo coach Adam Wright.
This was the fifth straight gold for the USA at the Pan American Games, which take place every four years somewhere in North or South America. Forty-two countries are eligible to participate.
Wright is no stranger to the Olympic spotlight, as he went with the national team to Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. In China, he helped the team bring home the silver.
His career has taken him all over the world ““ from 2004 to 2007, he played professionally on several teams throughout Italy and one in Moscow.
The life of a professional athlete in Europe is a luxurious one. The entire day is focused on water polo, and there are few other responsibilities for the players to worry about.
Wright described it quite simply as “a beautiful life.”
In other countries, water polo is what baseball or football is to Americans. When playing for a team in Europe, said Wright, one is a superstar in the city for which one plays. People watch water polo on television all the time, and players are recognized in the streets.
It’s a very different experience for players in the U.S., where there is no professional water polo, only differing levels on the national team.
The current members of the Bruin team look up to their coach, and many hope to one day emulate his accomplishments.
“Adam’s a big help with that,” said junior Josh Samuels. “He’s a huge advocate for those of us who want to do the national team.”
Redshirt senior Cullen Hennessy hopes to one day play overseas much as Wright did.
“He wants all of us to go experience what he did overseas. … He thought it was great and he really enjoyed it,” Hennessy said. “He’d love for all of us to get that opportunity. … If we want it bad enough, he’s willing to help.”
Wright takes on multiple responsibilities, what with being on the national team and coaching the No. 1 water polo team in the country, but he manages to balance everything.
It took a period of extremely long days to find this balance. He would leave his house at 5:15 a.m. to come to UCLA to swim and lift weights. Then he would leave UCLA after water polo practice ended at 7 p.m. to go to Thousand Oaks to do his own training until 10 p.m.
Though it is a grind, Wright, along with many of his players, notes the benefits that come from his time on the national team.
“I really believe, as a young coach and a student of the game, that to see and play it at the highest level, it’s a luxury,” Wright said.
“He knows what it takes to win, that’s really beneficial for us,” Hennessy said. “He brings back new stuff … that the best teams in the world are running.”
As a member of the national team, Wright not only gets to witness the best teams in the world, but also the best coaches. As a coach, he is able to from what he sees as a player.
Samuels said that although Wright was still an assistant coach when he was being recruited, working with a member of the national team who could help him go far in the game of water polo was definitely a reason he chose UCLA.
Last week, players mentioned that they felt prepared to play without their coach present.
Assistant coach Daniel Leyson stands in for Wright when he is absent ““ which isn’t often ““ and the team has just as much respect for one coach as the other.
“The team’s really matured, so the team did really well without him,” Hennessy said. “Leyson is more than capable of being a head coach himself, so we didn’t miss out.”
His absence was planned far in advance to work with the schedule, as there are many people at the top level of the conference willing to help Wright balance his accomplishments.
While he was in Guadalajara, UCLA had two non-conference games one weekend and a bye the next.
Wright had the opportunity to play alongside one of his former players in Guadalajara: goalkeeper Chay Lapin, who graduated from UCLA in 2009.
Not only was Lapin a former Bruin coached by Wright, he also played under him in high school at Wilson High School in Long Beach.
Both Wright and Lapin had very successful UCLA careers. Lapin is UCLA’s all-time saves leader, with a total of 719 stops. Wright led the Bruins to back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000. Both were four-year starters during their time at UCLA.
Wright had one moment that stuck out to him when receiving his medal in Guadalajara.
He looked down and saw Emilio Vieria, whom he coached for two years at UCLA, receiving a bronze medal for Brazil.
He then looked at his own team, and saw Lapin standing with him.
“That was my proudest moment. It was kind of hard to take ““ it means I’m getting old ““ but for me, it was really special,” he said.