By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Monday, August 6, 2018
Justin Wright has been the same height – 5-foot-7 – since the seventh grade and weighs less now that he did then.
For many years, he thought his size was going to be his biggest limitation to reaching his swimming potential and realizing his dream of being an Olympian.
But he refused to listen to the noise he heard from others and forged his own path – acknowledging what he knew about himself deep down.
Size doesn’t matter when your desire is strong.
“I never thought I could get to where I am now because people have always put such a big emphasis on body types being a major factor in the success of athletes,” he said. “I've come to realize that it's much less about the body than we think; it's more about your mental strength.
“I hope that I can pass on what took me so many years to learn and inspire short athletes that may be thinking they can never be the best just because of their height. I like to say I'm ‘Doing it for the little guys!’”
What he’s doing is winning National titles regardless of his physical stature.
He took top honors two weeks ago in the 200 butterfly at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
Since 2016 Olympic Trials – where he finished ninth and a spot outside of the finals in the 200 fly – Wright has made steady progress. Last summer at Phillips Nationals, he was fifth.
He’s a testament to what a difference a couple of years and tremendous dedication to swimming can make.
“In past years, I have tended to work on my race one aspect at a time to try and maintain steady improvement,” he said. “In my first few years of college, I worked heavily on underwaters to the point where I actually feel guilty during practice if I do an underwater with fewer than 8 kicks.
“More recently, however, I started putting more importance on capitalizing on aspects that were already strengths with the intention of improving them to the point that no one in the world could beat me in them. That’s where my back half during Nationals came from.”
At Nationals, Wright trailed for the first 150 meters but sprinted the final 50 meters and raced down his competitors for the victory.
Considering earlier this year after completing his NCAA eligibility and graduating from the University of Arizona with his degree in business management he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue swimming, he knows now he made the right decision.
And now he’s heading to Tokyo this week to compete at the Pan Pacific Championships – something he never thought he’d be doing a couple of years ago.
“To be honest, I never saw myself making it this far in swimming when I was younger,” said Wright, whose earliest memory of watching the Olympics was in 2008. “I always knew I was at a certain disadvantage in terms of my body type, so I figured if I could just get a college scholarship, that would be best case scenario.
“I, just like many of the people who graduated college this year, was faced with the decision of whether or not to continue swimming through 2020. Making a team solidified that decision for me and gives me all the confidence I’ll need to give it my best shot at the 2020 Trials.”
Wright started swimming around the age of four when he followed his older brother, Cary, who had tried a variety of sports and settled on swimming, to the pool.
Wanting to be “just like him,” Wright also started swimming. Cary is also the reason Justin swims the 200 butterfly.
“It was his best event, and I always dreamt of beating him in it,” Wright said of his older brother, who swam at the University of Southern California – setting up an intense Pac-12 brotherly rivalry.
Wright said going into Phillips 66 Nationals two weeks ago he realized how important the meet was for his career in swimming because of the number of teams that would be chosen from the results.
He figured, at worst, he could make the A team, and he knew he had a shot at making the top 3 and earning a spot on the Pan Pacs team – but he never really thought he would be able to win the actual event.
“Almost all of the big names in the event have beaten me countless times over the years so it was definitely very intimidating racing them for team spots,” he said. “I remember every detail from what I was thinking about in warm up to how impossible it was to fall asleep that night. Seeing 1 beside my name was something I had never experienced before at a meet of this caliber. It was such a meaningful experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
Wright said he attributes the confidence he learned swimming at World University Games – his first senior-level meet – last summer (finished 7th in the 200 fly) toward his achievement at Phillips 66 Nationals.
But at the core, he said his improvement and continued success goes back to the arrival of Augie Busch as the new head coach at Arizona last year.
“Before Augie came, our program was incredibly unstable,” he said. “I was so frustrated with everything that I had even considered quitting swimming altogether and giving up on Arizona.
“When Augie came, he really brought the team together by uniting us with one goal, to become the best in the NCAA again. Knowing he plans on staying for as long as he is still coaching brought stability and a drive to our team that I had never seen in all my years there. If it weren’t for Augie and the rest of the new staff, I have no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t even be a swimmer today.”
And when Wright takes to the water this week in Tokyo and represents the United States at Pan Pacs, he said his mind will be not just on swimming his best event but on the man who inspires him every day in swimming and in life.
His father, Dowain, swam in high school and was a master’s swimmer throughout his life. In 2016, while training for an upcoming meet, he died from a fatal arrhythmia and drowned in the pool.
Wright said he needs no other source than what his dad means to him to want to succeed in and out of the pool.
“Most people wanted me to take a break from the stress of the NCAA season for a little while (after he died), but I threw myself right back into a dual meet against Cal Berkeley a week later,” Wright said.
“Swimming was my best way to work through the frustration I felt and being with my team on a pool deck was the only thing I wanted at the time. Now, every time I race I think about him and how excited he would be to see how far I’ve come.”