UCLA Olympian Profile: Adam Wright
July 6, 2012
UCLA owns one of the richest Olympic traditions of any University. Over the past nine decades, nearly 450 athletes, coaches and trainers have represented UCLA in the Summer Olympic Games, winning 230 medals, including 110 gold. UCLABruins.com celebrates the school's rich Olympic history with profiles of UCLA Olympians, past and present.
Men's water polo head coach Adam Wright contributed to UCLA's medal haul in 2008, winning a silver medal with USA Water Polo. For his third Olympics this year, he is focused on gold.
By Amy Hughes
Days away from embarking upon his third experience as a member of the U.S. Olympic Men's Water Polo Team, Adam Wright has his sights set on a gold medal.
The long journey for Wright began as a UCLA student-athlete in 1996 and continues on as the Bruins' head men's water polo coach and Olympic team member.
Wright was part of a core group of athletes that started to train on an elite level in 1997, proof that the path to London has been a lifetime goal. Only two of that group made the team for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but much of the group was ready for their Olympic debut in Athens in 2004.
"We were a young team comprised of many first-time Olympians," remembers Wright. "Most of us had played in an NCAA Championship game, but your first Olympics, that's a world stage. There are a lot of unknowns when you go over there. You walk into an arena with 10,000 people going crazy. That's not something you get every day here.
"In that first Olympics, not only did we not have many experienced players, but it was a new experience to many of us. We were kind of wide-eyed going in, but we played some excellent games there."
That 2004 team opened its Games with a last-second victory over Croatia (7-6). The Americans opened with a second consecutive win, defeating Kazakhstan, 9-6, before falling to Hungary (7-5), Russia (9-7) and Serbia and Montenegro (9-4) and failing to reach the medal round. The three U.S. losses came to the three teams that medaled in those Games, as Hungary won gold, Serbia and Montenegro earned the silver and Russia won the bronze medal.
Despite failing to advance to the medal round, the experience in Athens set the table for the Americans in Beijing.
"In '08, we had a majority of our group back," said Wright. "I think 10 of the 13 were back from '04. In the four years leading up to Athens, we played more games than anybody else in the world. We kind of hit a rough spot in '05 and '06 with the changing of coaches, but the one thing we did in '07 and leading up to '08 in Beijing was that we stuck together as a group. We knew we couldn't let what was happening out of the water affect us.
"We started getting results. That stuff becomes infectious when you start winning. Obviously, going into the Olympic Games, we were in a good place as a group. It was our second time there, and I'm a big believer that in sports, experience is one of the most important things."
In Beijing, the Americans opened with an 8-4 win over China, then defeated Italy (12-11), lost to Serbia (4-2), beat Croatia (7-5) and beat Germany (8-7) in order to advance to the medal round.
A 10-5 win over Serbia in the semifinals advanced the U.S. to the gold medal game, where they fell to Hungary, 14-10, bringing home the silver.
"We were able to get a result," said Wright. "At the end of the day, it was a huge accomplishment, but the reason that most of us are back again is because it's not such an easy thing to live with a silver medal.
"For us, it was the first medal in over 20 years. I don't want to say that it was a horrible thing, but the reality is that it takes so much to get to the final game. There are so many factors that go into it, but to come out short is brutal. It's absolutely brutal.
"It's a heck of a thing that we've done for our sport here in the United States, but as you know living in the United States, only one medal really matters. It's sad to say, but that's the way it is."
Many things have changed for Wright since the Beijing games. An assistant for both UCLA's men's and women's water polo teams for the 2008-09 academic year, Wright became the fourth head coach in UCLA men's water polo history, replacing Adam Krikorian, on June 3, 2009.
"Everything is in cycles of four," said Wright of his competitive water polo life. "The timing this quadrennium has worked out really well. A lot of times in the past, the World Championships, the summer tournament, etcetera, would go deep into August, which would have created a problem. For whatever reason, this cycle they didn't. I've always been able to be home before we actually start our preseason camp, which is very important."
Wright was clearly focused on the London Games, even when interviewing for the head coaching position at UCLA.
"When I interviewed, I let them know there was a possibility I would continue on (with the National Team)," said Wright. "I stated the reasons I thought it could work, and I thought there was benefit to me staying on. There are also some negatives, but to have the support of my bosses, Ken Weiner and Dan Guerrero, that is huge. I'm very, very lucky to have this opportunity.
"I've thought about this a lot, looking into the future. The game is always changing. I'm lucky that I'm able to follow that where it's on the cutting edge. It's been very helpful for me, and for UCLA to give me that chance and to support me on that has been a real blessing."
Wright's days, especially in the last year, have been packed, to say the least. Generally speaking, those days started with a 5 a.m. wake-up to lift and train on his own prior to coaching his Bruin team. After practice, Wright would drive to Thousand Oaks to train with the National Team in order to prepare for the Pan-American Games, where the U.S. qualified for the Olympics.
"It's our job to prepare the best program possible," said Wright. "This hasn't been any different than any of the other summers. My assistant and I have mapped out everything. The guys have understood the importance. The reality is that the players have to hold themselves accountable and the group accountable. Anybody can slip through the cracks even if the coaches are there. It's really what each individual wants out of it."
As the Games are now just a few short weeks away, Wright can look back on all the hard work he has put in and is confident in his team's chances in London. But he can also clearly see what has been set aside in pursuit of athletic goals.
"The last year has probably taken a few years off of my life, but I can't complain," said Wright. "I absolutely love doing both. It's hard for me to be away from UCLA because I love the group of kids that I have there, but I really believe this experience of playing at the highest level and being interactive at the highest level has been a huge help for me as a coach."
There is one other former UCLA student-athlete that has been instrumental in Wright's path to London. His wife, former UCLA women's soccer player Kerry Norris, has been holding down the fort at home with the couple's two-year-old daughter, Rome, and infant son, Zsolt.
"For any wife or significant other of a water polo player, it's not easy," said Wright. "We're never home. We're on the road. Just being the coach at UCLA keeps you out of the house, and then on top of that playing with the national team, I'm never home.
"We looked at this over a year ago and decided we wanted to have another kid. We knew it was going to be a tough period. Really, the champion of this whole thing is my wife. She's home raising two kids, and I'm on the road or at UCLA chasing my dream. They're the ones making the sacrifice. Not me."
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