May 14, 2009
BY MIKE STRANGE Courtesy News Sentinel
She came to Tennessee as a walk-on middle-distance runner. Her GPA is 3.97 in a double major of impossibly complicated biology.
That resume often translates to someone whose career highlight might be finishing 19th at, say, the Sea Ray Relays, but who doesn't make the travel squad for the SEC or NCAA meet.
Phoebe Wright is different.
She not only made the travel squad for the SEC outdoor championships that begin today, she expects to win the 800 meters.
Why not? She won the SEC indoor 800.
"Her learning curve has been very fast,'' Lady Vols coach J.J. Clark said Wednesday as Wright and the team arrived in Gainesville, Fla., for one last practice.
Wright is a junior and she's not a walk-on any more. She's an All-American. She's an SEC champion. She has run on relay teams this year that set American and even world records.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I saw all that,'' Clark said when asked what he remembered about recruiting Wright at Red Bank High School in Chattanooga.
"Her personality stood out. I saw someone I believed I could coach. ... You recruit off a feeling, off an idea that, hopefully, the chemistry between the athlete and the coach can work well.''
All Clark offered was a chance to develop. Wright turned down athletic scholarship money from other schools and, in fact, had considered going to South Carolina or Colorado to get farther away from home.
"I didn't want to go to Tennessee,'' she said. "But I went into a panic mode and didn't have a school so I decided to take a visit.
"It ended up we matched perfectly.''
The first months on campus back in the fall of 2006 were far from perfect. Wright's psyche took a beating from getting left in the dust every day at practice.
Gradually, things improved. Her breakthrough moment was at a meet at Vanderbilt the following spring.
"I asked coach about four times if I could break 4:30 in the 1,500 and he assured me I could,'' she said. "I ran 4:27. That was a big shock I could do that.''
The seconds have kept coming off. Nothing is a shock any more.
Wright won the SEC 800 indoor title in March at 2:02.39, the second-fastest indoor 800 in Lady Vols history.
She finished second in the NCAA indoor 800, an improvement on a sixth-place finish at the outdoor 800 last year.
At the Penn Relays last month, Wright and roommate Sarah Bowman helped the Lady Vols win three relays, setting an American record in one, a world record in another.
"It might have been the best three days of my life,'' Wright said.
But her best days are probably still to come.
"I have the drive to keep running,'' she said, "until I hit my potential or until my heart's not in it any more.
"I'll take it however far I can go.''
Clark is interested to see how far that is.
"She's a junior and she's maturing now,'' he said. "There's always more as you mature.''
Wright said she doesn't try to predict the future. Neither does Clark, as the future relates to this meet.
The Lady Vols won the SEC and NCAA indoor titles. The outdoor championship is a different entity with more events.
"But we have people who can score in the javelin and hammer and discus,'' he said. "We have people in the four-by-one (relay).
"I only know one way, put the hammer down and see what happens.''
Today: The Lady Vols don't have a heptathlon entry. The UT men will send Michael Ayers into the decathlon with the SEC's best score this spring. Ayers was the indoor SEC heptathlon champion. Freshman Matthew Best is also entered.
The bulk of the meet starts on Friday.