Wright on track to greatness

Wright on track to greatness

Red Bank graduate is key part of Lady Vols records

April 28th, 2009 by Will Woodbery in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE - Overcome by fatigue, Phoebe Wright crossed the finish line and got sick.

The then-Tennessee freshman had challenged Michigan's Anna Willard, a future U.S. Olympic team member, in the third leg of the women's 4X800-meter relay before Willard pulled away in front of a crowd of 46,000 at the 2007 Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

Willard and the Wolverines went on to win the relay that day.

But Wright who felt victorious.

"I wasn't scared to hang on to (Willard) as long as possible and give her a run for her money," recalled Wright, now a UT junior whose curly red hair blends seamlessly with her orange uniform.

"That was the hardest I've ever run. But having done that, I know where my limit is. I know what it feels like to put it all out there."

The gutsy display was a breakout performance for the Signal Mountain resident who went to Red Bank High School.

A former walk-on now on scholarship, Wright has flourished at Tennessee. After earning three All-America honors last year, she won an individual SEC championship in the 800-meter run and helped UT's distance medley relay team set a world record in its second straight national title at the NCAA Indoors Championships this March.

She was part of another world record, the 4x1500, at this past weekend's Penn Relays, as well as an American record in the 4x800.

The Lady Vols will compete at the Tennessee Invitational in Knoxville on May 9 before heading to the SEC Outdoor Championships at Gainesville, Fla.

Wright still draws inspiration from that day two years ago in Philadelphia.

"The Penn Relays changed my whole mindset," she said. "That's when I realized how realistic being really good is. And I really realized the work that was needed to be put in to be really good."

Instilling belief

The jubilant text messages appear on Rodney Stoker's cell phone with increasing frequency these days.

"I just won the SECs."

"We just set the world record in the DMR."

Stoker can't help but smile. These updates represent progress for a young runner's budding career - and, in a way, vindication for a former coach who never doubted her potential.

"I told her a long time ago that you could be very good at this," said Stoker, the Bryan College coach and former UT-Chattanooga standout who worked with Wright at Red Bank during her sophomore and junior years.

Stoker's confidence was evidently infectious.

"He really believed, so I really believed, too," Wright said.

At first, however, Wright needed some motivational prodding.

"She was scared," Stoker recalled. "I remember some of her teammates beat her in the 800 meters ... and I asked her why she didn't take the lead late in race and win it. She just kind of second-guessed herself. And I said, 'If you want to be good, you can't ever do that. You really should have won the race.'"

Wright took the criticism to heart and committed herself to improving.

"In my head I've always wanted to be on top, and the way you do that is to believe you can be on top," she said.

From the outset, Stoker was a believer in Wright.

"When she steps on the track, it's like flipping on a light switch," he said. "She's real competitive and she refuses to get beat."


Queries about grades elicit only a shrug and a smile from Wright.

"I just work hard at all my classes and at the end, I'm like, 'OK, what did I get?'" said Wright, a double major in evolutionary biology and biochemistry.

"It's what I learn the easiest, so it's not as hard as that sounds."

Wright juggles her class load with daily track workouts.

"It's really hard to keep up with both, but you've just got to do it," said Wright, who graduated fifth in her class at Red Bank.

That mentality applies to track, too, and it paid off in early March when she posted a career-best time in the 800 at the SEC indoor meet in Lexington, Ky.

"Even though my times didn't indicate it when I first came to UT, I always thought I was capable of doing something like this," Wright said following the race. "I get up every morning at 6 and leave campus every night at 6 after practicing twice during that time period, so it's nice to see the hard work pay off. "

Roommate chemistry

UT senior track star Sarah Bowman complements Wright nicely. They comprise half of each of the Lady Vols' record-setting distance relays, and they are roommates.

"Her strong points are my weak points and vice versa," Wright said. "So if she gets discouraged, I'm there to pick her up. Just the fact that I see her out there every day doing this and putting in 100 percent, I know that it's possible and you can really give your all every day. I've followed suit."

Likewise, Wright has been a source of inspiration for Bowman.

"Phoebe's come a long way," Bowman said. "It's been fun to be here and watch her, especially to watch her succeed. It's been inspirational for me watching her. It definitely gets me ready and makes me all the more excited to compete because she's got such a heart and passion for the sport."

Wright said she's looked to Bowman for guidance.

"She devotes a lot of aspects of her life to being really good at track," Wright said. "It's rubbed off on me, and she's been a really good influence.

Looking ahead

Wright maintains an optimistic outlook for each race.

"I don't let previous races, if they're bad, get me down," she said. "I only take the positives and I learn from the negatives. In each race, I improve what I need to do. I've found it's more rewarding to just give 100 percent than to give 80 percent and regret."

That approach has served her well. Wright has steadily improved her times in her three years at UT.

And at 20 years old, there's even more room to grow for Wright.

"She's got certain goals that she wants to achieve, and she's getting there," Stoker said. "A lot of people would be happy with being an All-American and being a runner-up (in NCAA indoors), having the top time in the nation as a junior, but she knows that she's young in the sport.

"I think she'll go further and do better."