Coach Adam Wright called it “coming home.”
In the middle of a promising career playing professional water polo abroad and making two Olympic appearances, he got an offer he could not refuse ““ coaching men’s water polo for UCLA, his alma mater.
Now, as many of his players set their sights on the Olympic Games, they know they can look to their coach for advice from someone who remains among the elite of the sport. Wright is expected to be a major part of the U.S. Olympic team at the London Games this summer.
“I really believe that it has been a huge asset for me, as a young coach, to get to play and to learn at the highest level of our sport, from some of the best coaches,” Wright said. “I love that I have the opportunity to get better as a player. … All the things I love about playing in turn help me as a coach.”
And while Wright continues his pursuit of a gold medal this summer ““ USA lost out to Hungary in the finals of the 2008 Games ““ other UCLA coaches have put their playing days behind them to focus on the next generation of competitors.
Jeanette Bolden is one such coach. After winning a gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay in the 1984 Olympics, the UCLA alumnus returned to her alma mater as well, hoping to move past the bitterness of a career-ending injury in the 1988 Olympic Trials.
“I volunteered at UCLA and moved from wanting to achieve my goals to help others achieve their goals,” she said. “I like seeing young people grow and mature ““ they’re not focused as freshmen and they really grow by the time they’re seniors.”
Decades later, Bolden’s prowess as a coach brought her back to the Olympics.
She was named the head coach for the 2008 team, leading Team USA to an impressive 23 medals.
She remains the only U.S. Olympic coach in history to have won a gold medal as an athlete ““ an accomplishment she says has proved invaluable to her coaching experience.
“I talk to (athletes) about the anxiety they feel, the nervousness ““ it doesn’t go away just because you’re a world-class athlete,” she said.
“They’re really surprised that they are still nervous, (but) it makes them realize they’re not different and that they are capable. That’s something my experience has really helped with.”
Other coaches are quick to agree that teaching players about the mental challenges of world-class competition is far more valuable than mere physical training.
Chris Waller, associate coach for the UCLA gymnastics team, teaches his athletes about the importance of staying calm under pressure, something even he struggled with during his time on the international stage.
A year after graduating from UCLA, Waller competed in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where an intense internal focus ““ something Waller calls “the bubble” ““ got him to the pummel horse finals.
After letting his “bubble” down for a split second to take in the sights and sounds all around him, he found himself overwhelmed and panicked.
“I decided I wanted to soak it in. I looked at the audience and the flags and the cameras, and I just freaked out completely, just lost my head,” he said.
“It took me 15 minutes to remember how the heck to do consistent gymnastics.”
And although he eventually recovered his composure, executing what he called “the best routine I’ve ever done” and taking fifth in the event, he brought a renewed focus on mental preparation when he returned to UCLA as a coach several years later.
“UCLA gymnastics competes in the Bruin bubble,” he said. “We make practice as hard as possible ““ we try to make it feel like the competition. That way, when we go to competitions, it should be easy.”
This strategy got put to the test in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, when Mohini Bhardwaj ““ Olympic team captain and former UCLA standout ““ enlisted Waller as her coach.
When a twist of circumstance found her competing on beam unexpectedly, Waller said Bhardwaj’s years at UCLA were instrumental in maintaining her composure and earning USA the silver medal.
“She didn’t know if she was competing on beam until five minutes before ““ she didn’t even get to warm up on competitive equipment,” he said.
“All those years of experience at UCLA got her through that.”
Whether these coaches are competing in the Olympics or instructing from the sidelines, all agree that they are eager to pass on their wisdom to the next generation of Bruin Olympians.
“The reality is, I was in (my players’) shoes not too long ago, and a coach helped me get to where I am ““ I want to be that for them,” Wright said.
“It’s something that I take great pride in, when my players reach their dreams.”