Phoebe Wright - Elite Athlete Spotlight
Walking off the track for umpteenth time, she questioned herself for the first time.
“Why am I here again?” she thought.
Phoebe Wright’s first collegiate practice could not have gone worse. She could barely keep up during warm-ups. Every aspect seemed so different. She ran in high school at Red Bank High School, but now found herself in over her head.
Tears rolled down Wright’s face on the longest walk from LaPorte Stadium to South Carrick Residence Hall. Her freshman roommate Bryttany Curran served as a welcome sight for her bloodshot red eyes.
Wright and Curran shared more than just the same address; they were friends. Curran, who was a member of the swim team, talked with Wright for as long as she desired about everything with two exceptions: practice and school. That was exactly what Wright needed.
“I doubted myself for quite a while after that first practice,” Wright said. “It was not a glorious road that first year. It was rocky, ugly and my attitude was bad. I don’t know why I stuck it out. I guess I had a gut feeling my hard work would pay off.”
Coach J.J. Clark made no promises of a scholarship, Wright would have to earn it. Wright walked-on at Tennessee after making a late choice to become a Volunteer weeks after her high school graduation. Clark’s main standard for scholarship athletes was their potential to score points during SEC or NCAA Championship meets. Individual All-Americans could earn a full ride, and Wright aspired to join that group.
Her 5-foot-7 frame took a beating from the track her first year. Wright decided to work harder during the summer and throughout her sophomore campaign. She developed her two weaker areas: speed and strength.
To build her speed, Wright focused on intense interval workouts. Coach Clark set Wright’s goal for the 800m at 2:10. Training for this mark, they split the event in half. Wright would run countless laps striving for 65 seconds. Then, they would split the event again and try to achieve 32 seconds in 200m.
While, Wright never lifted weights before coming to college, Clark gave her a full regimen of exercises. Clark s workout exercises consisted of plyometrics, squats, push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups and abs.
“More than the training program, Coach Clark is a good coach because he makes you believe in yourself,” Wright said. “He’s keeps you calm, poised and confident. I think that’s why I did better than everyone else my senior year. Not that I was better, but because he kept me calm and poised.”
Seconds starting dropped off her split times, from 65 seconds down to 61 seconds consistently. Her finishes improved as her times decreased, going from finishing sixth her freshman year to winning races by her junior year.
The team traveled to the Penn Relays in the spring of her junior year where Tennesee dominated the 4x400m, 4x800m and the Distance Medley Relay.
Wright asked her coach if she could have one of the 18-inch, bronze circular plaques taht were awarded to victorious schools f they repeated their triumph during her senior year. Coach Clark, realizing the bet was a long-shot agreed quickly and never gave it a second thought.
The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named Wright an individual All-American in the 800m after she finished 5th at the NCAA championships during her junior year. Clark stood true to his word and awarded her a full scholarship for her junior year accomplishments.
Wright’s list of honors in college can easily fill up a page. A five time SEC Champion, an NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Champion and USTFCCCA South Region women's track athlete of the year just to name a few.
She also dominated the classroom graduating with a 3.96 GPA. Wright double majored in Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology setting her goals as high in the classroom as on the track.
The thought of Wright’s senior campaign is still jaw dropping in Knoxville. Sixteen consecutive times her foot met the starting line, 16 times she crossed first.
During her senior year she and her teammates were looking for a “double-triple”, the first occurrence in the history of the Penn. They completed the first half her junior year at Penn. The double would occur if they could do it again.
Wright with help of her teammates accomplished the unthinkable goal. She reminded her coach of his promise from a year ago. She selected the plaque from the American record-setting 4x800m team from her junior year; it hangs in the new house she purchased a month ago.
“There is so much hype around Penn Relays that we had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Wright said. “Those six races [spanning two years] are definitely the most memorable of my college career.”
Wright’s next goal after college was qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games. Wright needed to finish in the top three of the 800m final and trip to London was hers. For most of the race she maintained the third position, but the last 100m was a different story.
“The last 100m were the most exciting, earth shattering, heartbreaking 15 seconds of my life,” Wright remembers. “The last 100m I was in third and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to make to the [US Olympic] Team.’ Then, I dropped back to fourth and I was like, ‘Awwww’. Then something happened and I wound up finishing fifth.”
Without a trip to the London Olympics, Wright was forced to adjust her plans. After wrapping up her second professional season with three meets in Belgium, Wright took to the road with Erika Moore, her training partner. The trip served as an opportunity to tour the country and meet with different elite runners along the way. You can view an account of their trip at www.RunninTheStreets.com
“Glacier National Park is one place you have to go before you die,” Wright said. “And the Pacific Coast Highway is probably the most beautiful road I’ve driven. It’s winding and you have the mountains on one side and the beach on the other.”
Today, when Wright is not competing she speaks to high school kids about the sport that changed her life. Giving back to the community provides her with a tremendous amount of joy.
“When I talk to high school kids and they give me their times it is shocking, it really is shocking how fast they are,” Wright said. “I just try to tell them if they stay focused, they can do some really amazing things. Things they didn’t even think were possible.”
Next weekend, Wright will be back on familiar territory at the Penn Relays. She hopes to acquire her eighth Penn victory, possibly more.