After being out of the pool for a little while, University of Massachusetts senior Owen Wright was not sure what to expect when he stepped onto the block for the final dual meet of his collegiate career. He admitted being nervous in the build-up to UMass facing Fordham in the final meet of the regular season, having just returned to practice after dealing with complications from cystic fibrosis (CF).
“I just had to put all that negative attention away,” said Wright during a midweek phone call. “I had to divert that negativity and I just did what my coaches have trained me to do and that’s when you’re on the block and you hear the beep you perform. You can’t think about anything else when you’re on the block.”
Whatever mental hurdles Wright, a former standout for both Attleboro High and the Bluefish Swim Club, had to jump, his performance was better than even he could have imagined. He helped the 200-meter Medley Relay team earn a win to kickstart the meet and then set a pair of Rogers Pool records, in the 50-meter Freestyle (20.42) and 100-meter Freestyle (44.92), to help the Minutemen to a big Atlantic 10 Conference win.
Following the meet, Wright was named the A-10 Performer of the Week for the third time this season.
“It doesn’t happen a lot at this level where you really have some breakthrough performances,” he explained. “It really doesn’t. It’s a long, grueling trip throughout the season and you’re rarely close to your best time before the major meet, so I was super-happy.”
Wright’s swimming journey actually began years ago at the local YMCA, long enough that he admitted that he cannot remember the first time that he swam competitively. He said with a laugh, “I simply cannot remember the first time I started swimming. I can’t. It’s been such a long journey for me.”
He does recall that his first swim team was the Tsunami swim program based at the Attleboro YMCA. Despite being a smaller program, the Tsunami have several Div. I alumni, including Wright and Josh Beals (who swam for the University of North Carolina). As numbers dropped, Wright made the move to the Bluefish, a competitive USA Swimming club program that regularly sends swimmers to top colleges and even to the Olympics (R.I.-native Elizabeth Beisel in 2016).
Wright would stay with the Bluefish throughout high school, as he continued to improve and compete with some of the top talent in the country.
“Bluefish is renowned for the amount of pressure that they put on their athletes, a lot of traveling all over the country for training trips, and some pretty big swim meets,” Wright said. “That prepared me for the Div. I lifestyle, better than some kids that come from the YMCA level. That was what set me up.”
While this seems like a typical path for a college swimmer, it was not guaranteed that Wright would be a success in the pool. He has battled CF since birth. The disease, according to information from the CF Foundation, is a chronic genetic disease that affects the lungs, causing mucus buildup, infections, and other symptoms, and requires constant monitoring and treatment. When issues flare up, as they did during this season, Wright is forced out of the pool to manage his CF.
Despite the difficulties that it can cause, Wright saw CF was not an obstacle, but as a motivation.
“Sure there were some setbacks – I would get sick every so often and have to be out of the pool and that’s happened in my college career too,” he said. “It’s just part of life with the disease, but I just kept my chin up and pushed myself to do more.”
Wright continued, “When I’m feeling not so great, I push myself always to do more. That’s kind of what got me into this level of swimming. I step up on the blocks and I’m not feeling great, what am I going to do? Am I going to pull out of this race? No, I’m going swim the race and I’m going to try and win the race.”
Pushed by people who wanted him to stop or who wanted him to take it easy, Wright set bigger and bigger goals for himself. He was focused on meeting the qualifying times for the prestigious Speedo Junior National Championship, despite taking the block next to swimmers that were, by his own admission, much bigger and stronger. “I would get up on the blocks and I’d be like, oh man how am I going to get to that level?” he said. “Those times I really pushed myself to accomplish and I got one time when I was a junior in high school. Those cut times were my main inspiration.”
He achieved that goal during his junior year of high school, which was also the moment that he realized he could compete at the Div. I collegiate level. While swimming for his club at the top level, Wright was also a four-year member of the Attleboro High swim team, was named a Hockomock League All-Star three times and won state titles in the 50-free and 200-free in 2013.
High school swimming was a welcome break from the pressures of the club scene, even if it meant more than four hours per day in the pool. Wright said, “The high school level was more about showing up to practice and having fun. You’re with your friends, kind of chilling, and just having fun with the sport and that allowed me to kind of relax and take it a little less seriously.”
He added, “You get wrapped up in your head quite frequently when you’re on teams like Bluefish. I think it was healthy for me.”
His brother River also swam for Attleboro, before stepping aside after a strong freshman season to focus on Bluefish. River is now a junior and, according to Owen, being recruited by some of the top swim programs in the country. Having gone through the recruiting process, Owen is now offering advice, even if he admits that River is “much faster” and “on another level.”
“The whole game was very strategic,” Wright said of talking to Div. 1 schools. “I alerted River to this and told him, this is a business deal that you’re making.”
Wright ended up at UMass under legendary head coach Russ Yarworth, who is also an Attleboro native. Thanks to his time with Bluefish, Wright said that he was ready for the challenges of the Div. I level and it showed in the pool. He was an All-Conference performer as a rookie in the 800-meter Freestyle Relay (first team) and in the 200-meter Medley Relay (second team). He added three All-Conference honors as a sophomore, but he said that his senior season has been his best for the Minutemen.
“All the training that I’ve put in over the years is finally solidifying into really good skills that I can use in the water, skills that my competition might not have necessarily, and it basically comes from a long history with the sport,” he said.
He competes in the 50-free, 100-free, and 200-free, but it is the 50-meter race that remains his favorite. “It’s super-quick and there’s a lot of hype from the crowds,” Wright explained. “The best way to describe the 50-free is that it’s 75 percent energy and 25 percent actual performance. There’s the pre-race, you’re getting ready, you’ve got the crowd, you’re just feeling the energy and really only 25 percent of the time you’re actually in the pool swimming.”
After setting records in his final competitive swim in the Rogers Pool, Wright has turned his thoughts to his final meet as a collegiate swimmer. The A-10 Championships will be held in Geneva, Ohio on Wednesday and he is hoping to close out his career with one more big night in the pool.
“One last chance and I am just so thrilled with how I’ve performed,” he said. “I’m so happy to be going into A-10s in such a good position. This is just beyond expectation and beyond my wildest dreams for how I’d finish out my senior year.”
(Ed. Note – Wright is not the only former Hockomock League swimmer that is having a strong senior season for the Minutemen. King Philip alum Chris DiGiacomo, a senior at UMass, posted a time of 1:50.47 in the 200 Individual Medley against Fordham to set a new Rogers Pool record. DiGiacomo earned Div. III All-American honors as a freshman at Keene State.)