UCLA’s Adam Wright: When We Come Out of This We’ll Be Better for It.

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the University of Pacific Tigers, Sunset Recreational Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. March 29th, 2019 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 190329_WWP_0391.NEF
For the first time in decades, UCLA's Adam Wright is not by a pool in April. Photo Courtesy: Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

It’s now a common thread throughout intercollegiate sports: where were you when the novel coronavirus ended the NCAA spring season? As Adam Wright, NCAA men’s and women’s coach explains below, he and his Bruin women had recently returned to Los Angeles following a successful swing in the Bay Area. The prospects looked bright for a squad anchored by freshman Abbi Hill and sophomore Val Ayala—named All-Americans this week—and red-shirt freshman goalie Georgia Phillips.

And, then, sports in America stopped.

[Commentary: 2020 Spring Season Cancelled by NCAA is NOT the New Normal]

Speaking recently to Swimming World, Wright explained how strange it is to be idle during the spring, a time often his busiest time of the year. The silver lining—if you can call it such—is an opportunity to think about what’s most important during these challenging time, and to look back on the moments that make life worth living.

– This is probably the first time since you were a kid that you’re not involved with water polo. How are you navigating these challenging times?

I keep going back to—we got off an airplane from Oakland; we were playing Cal and Pacific with the women—that was four weeks ago. We get home from there after a great weekend—the girls played really well. We were supposed to have a Friday night game against Irvine. On Wednesday, we’re told that family probably won’t be able to go on the pool deck. By Thursday there was a call from Indiana, who was supposed to be coming to play us on that weekend. They weren’t coming.

By Friday our season was cancelled.

When I think back, that seems like years ago now. So much has transpired; for sure it’s uncharted waters. At the same time, the gravity of what the world’s experiencing has shed a different light on a situation unlike any of us have ever been in.

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Abbi Hill. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

Obviously, there’s way more to life than sport. But, when you have a sport like water polo—especially at a place like UCLA, one of the country’s highest institutions—you can take for granted how lucky you are.

With this pause, and hopefully it’s just a pause for all of us, the world as a whole—you’re going to change your gratitude when you go back to things.

Being a part of a team is really special; sometimes you forget that.

As far as not having water polo, it’s weird not to walk on a pool deck every day and see a group of men or women. It’s weird not to be preparing video—we prepare scouting reports; we hit print on the Irvine packet, and there it sits, unused.

The wide-range of everyday thoughts—hour-to-hour thoughts—whether it be you in New York City wondering when you can get out or here in L.A., especially being a coach, is there a time when we’re going back. What does going back mean? What are the ramifications for when we go back? What things will be different?

It’s easy to let your mind wander.

For me, without a doubt it’s the longest time that I’ve been away from a pool, except for when I was born and the first five years of my life. The smell of chlorine… it’s unfathomable.

My hope is I can be somebody even better coming off this and understanding how lucky I am.

The hard part for all of us is there’s no timeline. We’re doing the best we can to stay connected with our kids and be a support system for them. I can say it will be a great day when you and I can cross paths on a pool deck [and my team] can walk onto a pool deck and practice.

It’s unfamiliar waters, uncharted territory, mentally tough because there’s so much unknown. You can create a story in your head about how the future could or could not play out. The hope is that, when we all come out of this we’ll be better for it.

– At a moment when everything has been turned upside down, how do you and your staff maintain a sense of normalcy for your athletes?

When this all came down, we were heading into spring break and they started sending people home from school. The staff on both the men’s and women’s side quickly put a plan together. At the top of the list is setting a schedule. You want to keep a routine. Obviously, that doesn’t include going to the pool.

It does include: What time do you get up? It’s really easy to sleep all day. What we know for mental wellness is to keep a consistent schedule day and day-out. We laid out a plan for our kids. We meet three times a week.

Some kids are single kids; we’re finding that people with siblings are doing better with this [situation]. For me, the last thing I want to do is put more on their plates. With the program we’ve put together it’s all about touching base and having a consistent line of communication.

We could meet more than that but they’re all getting used to online classes. So we meet three days a week for 30 minutes, we check in, each person has a chance to tell a story, whether it’s about resilience or something like that. We also have time to joke around and play a creative game—just trying to keep it light.

If we can get them grounded, even for 30 seconds, we know that can be beneficial.

We cannot do anything physical with them. Getting out and taking a walk we know Is beneficial. These kids are highly-tuned athletes, so maybe they’re running—but a consistent schedule is critical for this.

– It appeared that your UCLA women’s team was peaking at the right time—and then the season’s over.

All the way through, even through the Kalbus Cup, which is the main preseason tournament, we were trying to build our depth. The hard part, when I was meeting with the girls and knew what was coming, there was no doubt this team was trending to a really special place.

With that, the second time we played USC—we have three great goalies [Jahmea Bent, Georgia Phillips, Quinn Winter]—our first goalie when we played [a 7-5 Bruin win], she got sick. We could have pushed it and played her but we want to be ready for different situations and played a different goalie.

If you’ve been around certain teams, the ones that have been successful, there’s just a different feeling. How the group’s connecting and growing. And this group had that—which makes it tough.

Now that season seems like years ago because of what we’re all going through.

– How do you evaluate decisions made by the Pac-12 and NCAA about this lost season, especially the decision to give spring seniors another year of eligibility?

What we talk about is: in college sports you have five years to maximize your four best. For women’s sports in the spring people aren’t red-shirting as much because that requires coming back for a whole year.

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UCLA’s Georgia Phillips. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

There was a lot of light shined on seniors, but for all the girls—whether you’re a freshman, sophomore or junior—they’re all in the same boat. And they all lost an opportunity.

With that, there’s so much that goes into these decisions that the general public doesn’t understand. There’s so much pressure that goes on each athletic department—it’s not as easy as: Just come back!

There’s financial and academic ramifications, and I think the NCAA and the Pac-12 spent a lot of time working on this. The top priority is keeping what’s best for the student athlete at the forefront of everything.

They made this decision with that in mind. Now, it’s up to each institution—and some have come out that they’re not going to support seniors coming back because of finances. I believe it was Wisconsin.

We’re still dealing with how that’s going to play out—how it’s going to affect budgets and scholarships. We’re not through those weeds yet. But having the option there is the right decision for these athletes. Think about your senior year of high school—the final few months—how exciting that was.

These kids don’t get to experience that! I’m in my own little water polo bubble but those are incredibly special times.

– Another monumental change for the sport was the postponement of the Tokyo Games until 2021. Athletes who have trained during this Olympic cycle now have to wait another year to compete.

No doubt, they had to do it. What the Olympic Games are is an event that brings the world together. There was just no way that you could have people come to one location from all over the world right now. But, that decision wasn’t so easy—it was going to go off in 2020 until it became clear that it was just impossible.

The Olympics are an event where people want to show up; it’s where the greatest sporting memories happen. Records broken, the fastest men and women on the planet, consecutive gold medals—that’s what the Olympic Games are all about.

From a training standpoint, if these athletes weren’t going to be able to make so-called miracles happen, it was then an event to just show up and participate.

You’re seeing articles come out about the athlete who was coming back for a fifth Olympics and had put everything on hold. Allyson Felix, the great runner, who had a child and this was going to be it. How is that going to affect her chances, because she was the favorite.

What I can say is that most of the people who represent their country at this level are resilient. The ability to keep your focus, especially in a time like now where you have to be creative with your training. Most of those athletes have that ability.

In water polo, where there aren’t people being sponsored by massive corporations, there’s a financial impact. Do you put life on hold for another year? My answer to any of my kids would be: work will always be there. The Olympic Games won’t. The opportunity to represent your country is not only a once-in-a lifetime opportunity but it also prepares you for life after sport.

I don’t want to make it sound like a no-brainer. There were so many teams well-prepared heading in. For example, Maddie [Musselman] training with the women’s team, They’ve been going since last summer and they’re beyond prepared.

I think about us sitting on the pool deck and telling our girls that our season’s done. I can only imagine being in the room with Adam [Krikorian] having to [tell his players] … that’s the wind from his sails.

[Adam Krikorian, USA Women’s Water Polo Coach, On Tokyo Olympics Postponement]

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Olympic memories to unpack. Photo Courtesy: Adam Wright

The interesting piece: does this give opportunities to some who are on the outside looking in? This goes back to resiliency. This is a moment when you could get sucked into a lull and you don’t know what happens. You could think you’re at 11 [on the roster] and now you’re on the outside.

There’s two ways this can go. You can take that motivation, knowing that you’re in a good spot. But, I won’t be surprised if we see someone come up who nobody thought would be in the picture.

There was talk that, if you can’t have the Olympic Games in 2020, then you just don’t have the games [at all]. That would have been terrible. I’m glad that there are games—the athletes deserve it, the coaches deserve it, the NGBs deserve it.

This puts a financial strain on so many different levels—but I’m glad those athletes will have their opportunity.

– The impact on the sport in America has been profound, including moving Junior Olympics into the winter holiday season.

Merrill Moses and I direct a club. the reality is, USA Water Polo put a lot of thought into this but… For me, whenever I talk to you I always talk about how important the East is. When I think of this—if you want to talk about two of the most expensive times to travel, we hit those dead on. With what we’re all going through right now, I think everyone understands just how important family is right now. When you’re taking from a holiday standpoint, that’s a tough period, too.

[More COVID-19 Bad News: USA Water Polo Postpones Junior Olympics, Part of 2020 Event Calendar Overhaul]

If we want to talk from the athletes’ standpoint, I was on the phone with one of our club directors. This past December I was at Newport Beach recruiting at the best high school winter tournament. How’s that [going to be] playing out for the high school girls?

I’m not in the room with US polo—maybe they figured this all out. They threw everybody off with those dates. I don’t know how much communication there was with the different zones—those things I’m not privy to.

If there’s one in November and one in December, how many coaches from the college ranks are going to be at those events? There’s going to be clubs that will have a hard time booking pools to train leading up to the December JOs. A lot of pools go offline because of lifeguard staffing—people go home for the holidays.

I also understand how important it is for US water polo to have this event. They’re supporting athletes [and] an organization, but I do find it to be a tricky situation to get the sheer numbers that they’ve had with this event.

I can’t envision coming during this time—we know that people’s budgets have drastically changed during this thing.

What’s most important is: this is a great outlet for these kids to get their minds of what we’re going through—whenever we get to that point. I just don’t know if we’re going to see the same ability as in years passed based on the timing of it right now.

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NCAA championship celebration—Bruin style!. Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

– Your thoughts about Gavin Arroyo being elected to the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame?

I’ve known Gavin since I was a young kid. I played age group water polo with his brother Robbie. He was someone we looked up to. He was an incredible swimmer and part of those special Cal teams. He played in Greece for so many years. Lightning fast, but one of the better defenders, super mobile.

[Arroyo, Rulon and Wigo Headline USA Water Polo 2020 Hall of Fame Inductees]

I was one of the young kids on the [national] team. He would always have me come over, take me to lunch. Those things were really important for my progress—and how I became a mentor as I got older.

He’s experienced it all, from an incredible collegiate career to playing professionally to representing our country a couple of times to coaching. Look at what he’s done with Long Beach State. He got them into the tournament two years ago and has an incredible team he’s putting together now. That positioned to become part of the national team staff.

No doubt, somebody who’s invested in our game—and one who has a broader experience than a lot of our coaches based on what he was doing as a player.

– Are there any water polo memories that you cherish during the times of this crazy, horrible pandemic?

With all that’s gone on—and the extra time we have now—every bag that I’ve come home from with the Olympic games has stayed zipped [up] and the gear’s been in there. Since I took the job [at UCLA] 12 years ago, when Adam [Krikorian] brought me back as an assistant, stuff’s in boxes and never been opened.

With this time, guess what I’ve done: I’ve started opening [them]. I came across a whole box of pictures, whether it be from the U.S. junior team in Havana, Cuba, where they held the World Championships, Or pictures with the UCLA guys where we were training.

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“The Bite” (it’s faint). Photo Courtesy: Jeff Powers

This has provided a lot of time to go back. Everything has been just “Go” and I’ve never really looked back. With that too, Zoom has been an incredible tool. We put together last weekend a 2014 UCLA parent Zoom so I could touch base with all the parents.

That was an incredible moment for those guys, me, the program.

There is a flood of memories right now. Looking at pictures which haven’t been opened in 20 years—or connecting remotely with Zoom—we were looking to do a reunion with our ’08 team. We couldn’t pull it off because of our schedule. Here we are we’ll pull it off because of Zoom.

As far as a game, [the NCAA final] in 2014, there were just so many obstacles that we overcame leading to that. The agony of so many close defeats, battling it out with USC. From a coaching standpoint that was a moment that was beyond incredible. We stuck through our guns and finally persevered.

As a player, we had a FINA World League [competition] in Long Island [at Eisenhower Park Aquatics Complex] in 2003. They decided right before the start of that tournament that there were too many whistles and it was too confusing.

Gianni Lonzi instructed officials that they could only blow the whistle a certain amount during the game. Our first game against Greece was no doubt the biggest bloodbath ever—and they had to change it after that. To this day, Jeff Powers has teeth marks on his shoulder. It was full-out fighting.

That was a moment in our sport where the rules were changed and it was an absolute bloodbath—something we all laugh and talk about.

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