Swimming isn’t brain surgery, but River Wright sure has a knack with the former and might someday be proficient in the latter.
The 18-year-old Attleboro native, an elite athlete for the Bluefish Swim Club, is wrapping up a nomadic summer — both in competition and training. With the Attleboro High School pool closed due to the construction of a new school, the Bluefish team practices wherever and whenever it can.
But when Wright finds the water, the competition results are stellar for the University of Michigan commit. At the New England Senior Championships in July, the Bluefish claimed the top spot among 44 teams; Wright was a big reason why. He pulled off a trio of first-place performances, zipping past the field in the 100-meter freestyle (51.33), 100-meter butterfly (54.70) and 100-meter breaststroke (1:04.52).
Wright’s latest effort came against the top adult athletes in the country at the Phillips 66 National Championships in Stanford, Calif. in July. It included a 54.09 time in the butterfly as well as fine marks in the 100 freestyle (50.88), 100 breaststroke (1:03.83) and 200 IM (2:06.26).
With his stellar performances, Wright, 18, qualified for the USA Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska in June 2020. He qualified for the 100 butterfly, where he holds a 53.63 personal best time and posted five sub-56-second marks since April. He is one of 19 trial qualifiers from New England Swimming, and one of four Bluefish representatives, joined by his younger sister Brynn, a qualifier in the 200 butterfly.
He also represented the United States for the first time in international competition last May, one of seven men selected to the team competing at the Mel Zajac Jr. International Swim Meet in Vancouver. Wright liked his taste of elite travel competition, and he’ll embrace it in the future if the opportunity presents itself.
“Just the preparation for that kind of meet, even packing by itself, gets you a little bit more amped up and ready to race,” he said.
Wright excelled under the tutelage of Bluefish Swim Club coaches. Ryan Yucka, a recent New England Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year, as well as Greg Plemin and Nick Rice. But Chuck Batchelor, the head coach of the program, helped push Wright to new levels, while also serving as a role model.
“You feel like he gives you full attention and every single bit of knowledge he’s gained in a matter of seconds,” Wright said. “He’s a mentor, a life coach and quite possibly the greatest man I’ve known to date — other than my own father [Vernon] of course.”
He’s sometimes needed those bits of wisdom — from family and coaches alike — over the last year on his circuitous path to adulthood. After three years attending Attleboro High School, Wright completed his degree through the TEC Connections Academy online school. Wright says the traditional high school experience didn’t fit what he called his “way of life” and “energy systems.” With a busy schedule, both in the pool and classroom, something had to give. He found himself missing class often, unable to give his endeavors the attention they deserved.
The change to online courses did the trick. He often studied or did coursework in different remote locations — The Providence Athenaeum library, with its Greek Revival aesthetic and classic literature, was a particular favorite — and, at times, that suited him best. Wright found an independence he didn’t know he so desperately needed, even if it offered him more of a direct academic challenge.
“A lot of your prosperity in that situation relies on your own ability to sit down and do the work,” he said. “If you’re not one of those kinds of people, I think [the program] can be very hard for you.”
Ultimately, he graduated with honors, while being able to keep up with his rigorous athletic schedule.
“I was much happier as an individual,” Wright said. “I could practice being on your own as a college student athlete, and I think it will serve me very well in the future.”
Wright also relied on his family as a sounding board, for both academic and athletic advice. His mother, Kat, was a constant source of support, in addition to an accomplished high school-level swimmer. River’s brother Owen just wrapped up his college swimming career at UMass, and the two frequently decompress over old-school video games. His grandfather Frank, too, was an accomplished swimmer for the storied Springfield College program, and Brynn’s competitive zest complemented his.
All that advice will be valuable to Wright as he prepares for the grandest challenges of his young life. He will study in Michigan’s biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience program.
Wright understands well the challenges of balancing a demanding course load and team responsibilities, yet allows himself to set big goals — targeting runs for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo or the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, the latter of which he says is his primary goal. Michigan makes no bones about its touted program. On the wall of its Canham Natatorium sits a clock that counts down the seconds until the next Summer Olympics.
Wright hopes, sooner or later, to be in position to compete at the highest level in the world. If it doesn’t happen, “no sweat,” he said. After all, the next few years have a lot of excitement in store.
“I’m achieving goals and making new ones as I go,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier, really. Just thinking about Michigan and thinking about a fresh start is excellent.”