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Varsity swim coach Wiley Wright isn’t going to yell at his swimmers if they don’t work hard. That’s not his style; it never has been. He will never say that winning is the most important thing even though he’s won 16 league championships and eight state titles in his 28 years as a coach. He won’t even pester them with questions, asking where they’ve been if they missed a practice.
But he will push them. He’ll make them do your best, and more than that — he’ll make them want to do their best.
“We work hard because we want to work hard for Wiley and we want to work hard for each other,” East graduate and former swimmer Corbin Barnds said. “If you don’t work hard, you’re not going to get better. You’re going to be hurting yourself and hurting the team, so we hold ourselves accountable. We wanna work hard because Wiley has done so much for us, so we wanna pay him back.”
It’s not his coaching expertise or even the stream of talented swimmers that flow into East each year that has made Wright successful as a coach. It’s the way he runs down the side of the pool at state, yelling “Go, go, go go!” every time his swimmers’ heads bob out of the water to be sure they can hear them. It’s the way he makes every single swimmer feel important by taking each of them aside at some point during practice to ask how school is going. Or how he pulls the group of guys together and forces them to act as one team rather than individuals.
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After having a mediocre experience swimming for KU in college and choosing not to swim his senior year Wright knew that once he graduated and started coaching, he would be doing the opposite of what he had experienced. In his 28 years at East, he’s taken special care to make his program an enjoyable one.
“I wanted to make [swimming] a fun experience, something that they’ll look upon and say ‘God, that was the best time, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at East’ you know, not ‘I hate getting up and going to practice. I hate getting in the water. I hate this, I hate that’.” Wright said.
To keep the atmosphere fun and upbeat, Wright celebrates things like his self-created Turkey Shoot practice: each swimmer, starting with the seniors, draws a piece of paper that could contain anything from a set like three sets of four 75’s to releasing the all freshman an hour early from practice. After they complete what’s written on their paper, they keep returning for more until practice is done.
Yet another tradition Wright has created is his famous “cookie and Coke” relay the weekend before state. The swimmers must first swim one lap, chow down two cookies and chug a whole Coke, spin around on a kickboard five times and swim back as fast they can. The challenge: trying to keep it all down. Junior swimmer Jackson Granstaff proudly admitted that he has never puked while doing the challenge, but has had to resort to pretending to chug his Coke when Wright wasn’t looking when his stomach began to churn.
The easiest way for Wiley to keep it fun — and the thing he’s most famous for — is his pranks.
It’s 5:50 on a chilly February morning and the 20 varsity boys are gathered in the East locker room. Some sit on the floor, staring off into space. Some lay strewn across the benches, eyes closed, begging for an extra five minutes of sleep. It’s nearing the end of the swim season and the grogginess has begun to set in, when, suddenly:
Around the room boys jolt up from where they lay, confused by the loud air horn; some even covering their ears.
“Time to get up everybody!” said Wright as he comes around the corner. “Let’s go! Get ready! Here we go!”
Dazed, the boys wrangle their goggles, towels and swim caps and head out. Wright stands by the door still holding down on the horn, ushering them out, stifling a grin.
It’s pranks like those that relieve stress not only for the swimmers, but for Wright himself. Carrying the public’s heavy expectation of bringing home another back to back state championship on their shoulders is no easy task, and joking helps them get through it.
“There’s a time and place to be serious, and I think there’s a time and place for it to be enjoyable,” Wright said. “When they come back, they’re not going to remember Yeah, we won state or we got second or third, they’re going to remember the experience that they had while being on the team.”
Although having fun is a big part of Wright’s coaching philosophy, it’s not all fun and games for the coach of 28 years. He also makes a point to let his players know that he cares about every one of them.
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Barnds, who watched and broadcasted many high school sporting events during his time at East, says Wright is different from the high school coaches he saw because he cares more about his swimmers’ well being than their success as an athlete. By being a great listener and advice giver when his guys are struggling, Wright works hard to make himself available for them whenever he’s needed.
“You see [all these coaches], they are cutthroat, eat sleep and breathe their sport; that’s all they care about,” Barnds said. “All they care about is their athletes. Wiley cares about all of us individually. Honestly he cares more about how we’re doing outside of the pool than what we’re doing inside the pool.”
From the sidelines, senior manager Meg Rowley knows that Wright cares equally about everyone from the way he treats each of the three managers just like he would a swimmer. During team pictures this year, Wright even insisted that Rowley get in with all the seniors so that she would be featured in the yearbook with them.
“[Wiley taught me] just to care about people,” Rowley said. “Wiley cares no matter what they swim, no matter who they are. you don’t know what they’re going through, so you’ve gotta be nice and be a good person.”
Whether a swimmer is on JV or varsity, Wright makes an effort to get to know all of his 68 athletes personally.
“I try to mention their name every day at practice, call them out,” Wright said. “I think it’s important that you try to connect with them so they think ‘he knows me’ and trying to get to know them. I’m always asking them, once they become juniors or seniors, Where are you thinking of going to school? How’s school going? What other sports do you participate in? How are your parents? I try to express to them that I do care.”
Another way Wiley connects with his athletes is by acting as a constant supporter. If they need advice, he’s there to talk. If they are struggling with something, he’s there to talk.
Barnds, who struggled with an ongoing shoulder injury and a bad case of the stomach flu that kept him from swimming at state, constantly leaned on Wright for support as he was struggling. When Wright was forced to switch another swimmer in for Barnds in a medley relay, he took it to heart. Barnds even credits Wright with helping overcome his disappointment and using the situation to come back and become a team leader.
“He knew how much it hurt me,” Barnds said. “Wiley came up to me after he made that decision and he told me how much he knew that I wish I could’ve been there, he knew how hard it would be to come back and watch. For him to acknowledge that, and really to be completely honest about it, you could tell that he was entirely serious and entirely sincere about the way he felt regarding me, the way he felt regarding the situation; he hated situations like that. It killed him.”
It’s this kind of thoughtfulness and caring that keeps swimmers from two, three, four, five and even ten years ago coming back to visit him on their Thanksgiving breaks. Barnds’ brother and fellow swim alum, 28-year-old Brandon, has been coming back to visit every year since he graduated East in 2006.
“[Seeing players return is] rewarding,” Wright said. “I would say I’m somebody that if you’re a friend of mine while you’re on the team, then you’ve got me for life. I like to think that once they’re done here they feel welcome to come back.”
Even knowing all these things about their coach, varsity swimmers still have trouble describing Wright. According to Granstaff, he’s a person so special and so valuable that there isn’t one way to label him.
“You literally cannot put words to it,” Granstaff said. “He’s just Wiley Wright.”