Adam Wright redefines water polo legacy as UCLA coach after storied playing career
(Katelyn Dang/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Kyle Boal
Aug. 6, 2022 4:56 p.m.
This post was updated August 7 at 8:38 p.m.
Adam Wright’s accomplishments as a player are enough to fill a trophy case. Two NCAA championships. Three-time Olympian. An illustrious overseas career.
But for Wright, that wasn’t enough.
Before his playing days were even finished, Wright had already transitioned to coaching.
“My coaches, starting from a young age, were some of the most influential people besides my parents,” Wright said. “As a player, I wanted to be like a coach in the water.”
After graduating from UCLA with degrees in history and sociology in 2001, Wright immediately got his start in coaching as an assistant at his alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School, where he won the 1994 Division I California Interscholastic Federation championship and was named the 1995 CIF Division I Player of the Year.
By 2008, Wright was an assistant coach for both UCLA men’s and women’s water polo. The following year, he was named UCLA men’s water polo’s fourth head coach in program history.
But Wright still felt like he had more left in the tank as a competitor – even after playing for Team USA and earning the country’s best finish in two decades with a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Long Beach native would start his mornings as head coach at UCLA, running practices and workouts, before going to four hours of training as a player for the 2012 Olympics. Wright would return to UCLA in the afternoons to watch film and game plan for opponents before finishing his nights in the Valley to train more as an athlete.
Adam Krikorian – who recruited Wright to be an assistant while he was head coach of both UCLA men’s and women’s water polo – said Wright was never the most physically gifted as an athlete but possessed the intangibles needed to reach success.
“The reason why he became an Olympian was because of his approach, mentality, work ethic, competitiveness, intelligence,” Krikorian said. “That’s the stuff that really translates to coaching and becoming the leader that he is.”
In 2011, Wright won his third Pan American Games gold medal before participating in the 2012 Olympics – his last competition as a player. After a run in which he competed for Team USA in every major tournament from 2001-2011, Wright called it quits on a playing career that he said taught him many lessons over the years.
“Most of all, be a good person, a good teammate,” Wright said. “I mean, one of the greatest lessons was, ‘The team doesn’t need you, you need the team.’ No one person is more important than the group.”
Wright broke through for his first championship as head coach with UCLA men’s water polo in 2014, also marking the beginning of an NCAA record 57-game winning streak, as the Bruins would go 30-0 the following year en route to another championship.
As coach of UCLA men’s water polo, Wright has won four national championships, been named National Coach of the Year four times and led his team to a perfect Academic Progress Rate four times, most recently in 2022.
“The reality is I could never look myself in the mirror if we weren’t doing things right,” Wright said. “We’re preparing our student-athletes not only for today but for tomorrow and the game of life. You always want to know that you did everything you could, no matter the situation, to have a chance to be successful.”
Eventually, Wright wasn’t satisfied with coaching just one team.
In 2017, Wright became the third coach in UCLA water polo history to coach both the men’s and women’s teams. The other two, Krikorian and Guy Baker, are individuals Wright considers friends and mentors.
Knowing firsthand the difficulties of coaching two college programs, Krikorian said Wright’s energy, passion and support system have helped him create a tradition of success.
“The great coaches, just like the great athletes, are the ones that can do it day in and day out,” Krikorian said. “That’s how you create a culture and sustain success. And that’s what Adam (Wright) is doing at UCLA.”
But coaching two teams the past five years hasn’t been easy, Wright said. Recruiting never stops, there’s minimal downtime between seasons, and there’s always something that needs his attention.
Still, Wright finds ways to stay hungry for success.
“I’ll never be satisfied whether it’s our men’s or women’s team,” Wright said. “Every year is a new group, and you want to put them in a position to be successful and learn and grow – as people and organically as a group. It’s a challenge, but for me, that’s the best part.”
In 2020, Wright faced a new type of challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the then-ongoing women’s water polo season. The following men’s season was subsequently delayed by multiple months, forcing an overlap in the men’s and women’s seasons that demanded Wright coach both teams at the same time.
Nonetheless, Wright led the men’s team to an NCAA championship that year while the women’s team reached its first NCAA championship appearance during his tenure.
In March, Wright signed a six-year contract extension, securing his place in Westwood until at least 2028.
“Seriously, I’ve never been happier than when I saw that contract signed,” said rising sophomore attacker Molly Renner. “I really respect him in so many ways. He’s a great inspiration of mine. … He’s changed my whole entire mindset of the game of water polo. I wouldn’t want to be coached by anyone else.”
Accumulating a combined record of 401-86 as coach of the men’s and women’s programs, Wright’s been inducted into both the USA Water Polo and UCLA Athletic Hall of Fames in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
But even with his trophy case filled to the brim, Wright said his favorite victories have come outside of the pool.
“The real win is when they leave and you go to weddings or you go to dinners – that’s the real championship,” Wright said. “It’s the lifelong bond.”