David Alexander Wright, March 1948 – August 2022

Let’s pretend for a second: you are out the back of Tiniroto in the bush, central North Island of New Zealand, and it’s getting dark. It’s raining. It’s not going to stop. You live in a small village miles away, currently in the possession of only your wits and your rifle. Once the light fades, you are most definitely lost. A dark, cold night could finish anyone off out here. It’s going to storm until after dawn. Who do you want to be there with you? Who has the tenacity, the strength and the good humour to survive the night and make it back to town when the sun comes up again?

My dad used this analogy whenever, as he would also say, the going got tough. He wanted the listener to consider their reaction to whichever predicament they faced and choose to be tenacious, strong, humorous. He did not appear to believe in platitudes that encouraged inaction like “this too shall pass”. Oh no, not in the bush out the back of Tiniroto with a storm rolling in and the sun truly set. None of these things passed my dad by. He kept on pushing.

Dad died in Auckland in August 2022 after a four-and-a-half year long tussle with kidney failure. As was his way, he outlived his life expectancy given his age and diagnosis by about twelve months. Three times per week, every week, he drove to a dialysis clinic on Auckland’s North Shore from his home in Henderson, happy to make the journey around the Waitemata Harbour because he was coaching a swimmer at the AUT Millennium institute a few hundred metres from where he received treatment. He would attend training, analyse the swimming session in the cafe with his swimmer (a Syrian refugee named Eyad, mentioned many times on this website, who stoically refused to eat the bacon from Dad’s breakfast until the end), then drive around the corner to sit for four hours and write, consider, reflect, publish. When he died, he was half way through a blog post for this website about his recent struggles which had landed him in the North Shore Hospital.

Tenacity, strength and good humour.

My first memory of my father when it came to swimming is far too early to pinpoint. He did not officially teach me to swim: he thought that was a terrible idea and would result in me not learning as much as I should, and possibly throwing various tantrums on account of being told what to do by my dad. However, he took me swimming so many times at Moana pool in Dunedin that by the time he handed me over to Bill Corrigal at the physiotherapy pool in the middle of town, I could swim confidently. We used to go to Moana multiple times a week, him literally throwing me around in the learners’ pool and me making him run up, up, up and up again the imposing Moana hydro slide until his legs turned to jelly. I was a water baby of the truest kind: I do not remember not being able to swim.

Fifteen years later, he told me that out of my various NCAA swimming options, I should go to Washington State University, and I did.

The day he died was the worst day of my life. I was in Auckland already, having flown from my home in England a week earlier, because the prognosis was dicey at best. We had six wonderful days. When Mum and I drove over the Auckland Harbour Bridge after a phone call from the hospital, telling us that things had taken a marked turn for the worse, I realised that in the afternoon sun, I could see the whitewashed tower block of the hospital from the road, and I knew. Unfortunately, there are too many people in the world who know what that pain feels like and so I don’t want to tell you about that. I want to tell you about the bush out the back of Tiniroto and who he found there.

Although he was a swimmer in Wairoa and Gisborne, and used to swim laps in the river in Te Reinga (the village he always made it back to after a night in the bush), his first athlete as a coach was a runner. She is also my mother. Dad first annoyed my mother by talking all night on the train to University Tournament in their early twenties, then won her heart by passing out at the bottom of Allenby Terrace in Wellington after a hard night and being rescued by his future wife, who offered him coffee. He saw my mother playing basketball and informed her that while she was terrible at the game, she was the best runner on the court. He was already a huge fan of legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard, and somehow he convinced Mum to give athletics a shot. He also knew, just as he would later with my learn-to-swim ventures, that he should find professional guidance for her. Even though my parents soon moved to the UK, they sought out Arch Jelley as Mum’s coach. Dad had to miss Arch’s 100th birthday party in early August on account of his hospitalisation, but Mum read his speech (and hers) at the event.

My mother went from university basketball to a world ranking of seventh in the 1000 metres. Shortly thereafter, all six women ahead of her were banned for steroids.

At one point earlier in her career, Dad remembered overhearing a spectator at a New Zealand athletics event ask, after seeing Mum run well, “Alison Wright? Isn’t that that hack runner from Wellington?” There was absolutely nothing, nothing in this world, that he loved more than watching someone much maligned end up winning. The hack runner from Wellington held the New Zealand 1000m record from 1979 until 2015.

Many years later, mid-storm and long before dawn, Dad found Eyad. He had taken a job coaching in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, only a year before he would be diagnosed with kidney failure. In a predictably all-male squad, Eyad and his brother Yamen stood out. They were not Saudi: their family had come from Syria on account of war. They proved their good humour immediately, helping “Mr. David” with Saudi culture and Arabic, and tolerating his attempts to learn their language via the power of Google Translate. Dad wasn’t doing too badly incorporating his translations onto the whiteboard at the pool until it came to the concept of “Distance Per Stroke”. He transcribed the Arabic into the morning’s session, only to be met with much confusion at what this swimming drill called Distance Per Heart Attack involved. Should we, Eyad and Yamen asked, fake a seizure every few metres? Was this an anaerobic endeavour, meant to bring one closer to cardiac death due to its intensity? Mr. David, what madness have you brought from the West?!

After his stint in Saudi, Dad returned to Auckland, but he kept in touch with Eyad. A plan was born to bring Eyad to New Zealand as a refugee, and Eyad arrived in Auckland in 2018. In 2022, he travelled to the Mare Nostrum series in Europe and then to the World Swimming Championships in Budapest, touring with the New Zealand swimmers and competing for the Fina refugee team. I filmed his 50 fly on my phone from Oxford and sent it to Dad, who couldn’t access the live feed. He visited Dad in hospital every day until we got caught sneaking in three visitors when we were only allowed two. Scheduled to swim the 50 butterfly at the New Zealand championships the day after Dad died, anyone would have forgiven Eyad for not being up to the task. Anyone, perhaps, except Dad. And so he swam. Then he swam the 50 breaststroke and put up a personal best time. Later in the week, he swam the 50 freestyle. He made night-time finals in every event. He made it back to Te Reinga after a night in the rain.

Eyad, far right, at Worlds with the boys

About twenty years earlier, Mum, Dad and I were living in Hawke’s Bay. I have written rather unfavourably about my time as a swimmer in Napier: it was utter shit. However, the two highlights of my life were my relationship with my father who, by then, was my coach, and my only teammate Bekki. Bekki is four years younger than me, so was a thirteen year old when we were dealing with the mire of politics and abuse we suffered in that town. After I left for America, Bekki found dealing with the abuse and intensification of attention on her in my absence too tough to bear. She retired from swimming. In the wake of my Newsroom article from a year ago, Bekki and I had a number of frank conversations about her treatment in Hawke’s Bay and I felt rather terrible about the whole thing. The wrath of people who’d had their sights set on destroying my career largely turned on her, now aged fourteen. From the outside, it seemed as if they’d managed to destroy her. She was one of the hardest workers I ever knew in a pool, wholly dedicated to the sport and to Dad’s programme, and yet she never got to reap the rewards some of us do: the international trips, the scholarships, the national accolades.

Bekki was one of the first people I let know when Dad died. She already knew I was in New Zealand. Perhaps also having reflected on our shared experiences over the past year, she told me what a life-shifting impact Dad had had on her and her future. From a small, hostile town, he had taught her to “dream bigger”, shown her that the world was so much larger and broader than anything she had ever imagined, and awakened the desire to go explore it. Working her way through the ranks as air crew (and suffering a setback due to layoffs during the pandemic), Bekki now works at the highest level of international air travel. They may have got the better of her in Napier. They may have falsely accused her of misbehaviour and profanity, just as they did me, but Dad’s influence lives on in her life, twenty years later. She also made it out of the Tiniroto bush, stewarding a private jet.

Bekki, dreaming bigger

Dad had other favourite athletes whose journeys he highly admired. He helped 2004 Olympic Champion Rhi Jeffrey in Florida after college, and then in Auckland, never tiring of her exuberance and endless talent. After a career of mainly coaching women, he delighted in the company of Ozzie Quevedo, Joe Skuba, Andrew Meeder and Doug Miller in Delray Beach. Ozzie broke a world masters record in the 100 butterfly whilst swimming with Dad, and their formidable relay team took down South Florida’s best during his time there too. He worried about Fara in the Virgin Islands, remained in awe of Terenzo in Auckland and owed his life to Brian in Napier, a triathlete and a GP, who saved his life twenty-two years ago and bought us two more decades of his company.

Doug’s cap was Dad’s favourite thing about this relay, after the fact that they won

Ozzie now coaches at the University of Alabama. Alabama swimmers have been so highly decorated in the past couple of years, I struggle to keep up with their achievements. Dad was so happy to see him involved in such a wonderful programme after meeting him in Florida.

And during all this time, he pissed a lot of people off. He had run this website since the year 2002, when our twenty year old neighbour Edward helped him set it up. Edward was a casual swimmer at the pool we used, and like Bekki he became a trusted friend and friendly face in the midst of a bad situation. He and Dad had a wonderful time setting up the website and its rudimentary analytics package, watching the work IP addresses of Dad’s detractors appear as daily readers. When I told Edward that Dad had died, he said, “When I think back on my life so far I am grateful for having known David. He really made an impression on me. When I think back to who stood out in my life back then, David was one of those stand-out people.”

Dad was unwavering about his support for those in whom he believed, but he was equally critical and often disappointed in those he felt were letting themselves or the sport down. The height of his disdain was saved for people who were letting the sport down in ways that hurt swimmers. Nothing pissed him off more than knowing that officials had flown business class to some competition on the national body’s dime while athletes had had to pay their own way in coach. Structural or procedural misdeeds that impacted performance and quality earned his ire too, and he was not shy about publishing his views here. His relationship with Swimming New Zealand had been rocky since the 1990s, and perhaps they were relieved about the years he spent in America and the Middle East. However, he was honest to a fault, and when he saw changes within Swimming New Zealand in the last couple of years, he was more than happy to celebrate the improvement. He was delighted with the national team’s performance at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and World Champs, which he saw as the spoils of an improved organisation starting to roll in. He began speaking fondly about an institution he’d battled for most of my life.

On my second day in Auckland, a week before he died, Eyad mentioned to him that at the upcoming national championships, the “Legends” relay (old ex-NZ reps who still fancy our chances of completing a 50 metre freestyle “race”) was one swimmer short for a full house.

I have never seen him scramble for his glasses and phone with such determination. This was a plan; a project. Jane, me, his daughter, must make up the missing place on this one-woman-down relay team. I fit the relay’s criteria. He called Swimming New Zealand CEO Steve Johns, who was on holiday. He called Gary Francis, who also wasn’t there. He looked for Gary’s daughter’s number. He ended up getting through to someone (I was losing track of who he’d called by this point) who put him in touch with Laura Quilter, the organiser of the relay. I received an email with instructions and teams, and information about the NZ Swimming Alumni charity. Dad was delighted. He sent me off to the Millennium pool to practise starts and turns. On Monday, the day before he died, he kicked Mum and I out of the hospital after a few hours to go buy a racing suit, because how (he said) could I swim it in my old training togs?

When he died, I did not want to do it at all. I know nobody would have judged me for not taking part. Maybe some people judged me for actually doing it. But as the week went on, I felt more and more sure that I had to do it. He would have been furious, entirely at himself, had I not. Because he didn’t just want me to buy a Fina-legal TYR racing suit and attempt to sprint two lengths: I am sure he wanted me to experience the good environment I had never really known in New Zealand swimming. We had stumbled around in the bush out the back of Tiniroto for so many years; he wanted me to walk back to Te Reinga in the sunshine.

I find this line a bit trite when compared with how he always talked, but I wanted to honour him.

I had hesitations as Mum and I drove up to the pool on Saturday evening. Eyad would be there, an unflinching friendly face and a popular enough person to shield me, I hoped, from the scathing newspaper article I’d written twelve months and one week earlier. We sat in the cafe upon our arrival (“Oh, the cafe has a pool?” my husband Stephen had joked earlier in the trip, alluding to the countless hours Dad spent at “his” table by the window). I re-read Laura’s email and saw that the relay swimmers would meet in the Swimming New Zealand board room above the pool shortly after the start of the evening session.

Nobody stopped smiling, from go to woah, just as he wanted

The kindness, love and respect everyone showed him that night will stay with me forever. I have never felt more welcome at a swimming event in New Zealand, and I have never before heard from so many people how they understood his integrity, morality and his goals. Throughout his entire life, nothing he sought to achieve was actually about him. Especially as a coach, his determination was entirely about the athletes. He annoyed people to litigious levels, and yet none of this was ever done to further his own lot in life. He didn’t seek out the most profitable jobs or curate his own image on the back of others’ success. All he wanted was for us to do well, something noted almost uniformly by the people I spoke to, both online and at the Sir Owen Glenn pool on Saturday night. Eyad speaks about how the programme in Saudi went through scores of coaches in as many months, until Dad came along and worked so hard for them, not for himself. He would plan and ponder for hours, days, weeks, setting in motion events that changed lives. He changed my life, and the life of my mother, to the degree that we achieved things we never would have known existed had it not been for him. And he asked for no thanks for it (although we tried to tell him over and over again) besides that we enjoy ourselves and act, for want of a better word, honourably. The people who didn’t understand him, whom he angered over the years, failed to understand this as uniformly as his supporters knew it to be true.

I am now three hours away from Singapore on a flight back to the UK. This is not what I wanted to write on the trip home (at this point, I am in an open relationship with the concept of “home”). We all wanted to round out the week with Dad watching the nationals live stream on YouTube (and what a brilliantly professional job Swimming New Zealand did of that too). We wanted plans to be in place for rehabilitation and continued treatment. We wanted him to watch the plane’s progress on Flightaware, and be delighted with my ability to WhatsApp him via the plane’s wifi. We don’t always get what we want. My dad was a best friend to me from the day I was born, and I have spent so many hours talking to him in person, on the phone and via video chat, but I’ve never asked “What would you want most, as a coach?” I don’t have to guess at the answer though, because he said enough over the years, including in the last month, for me to know. He wanted to know that the people he helped went on to live good lives. That involvement in the sport, and with him, led to good things. Of course, he also wanted for us what all coaches want: fast races. That goes without saying, and many a poolside lecture was delivered in pursuit of that end. However, of the regrets I have, one of the strongest is that he never got to see the messages from all his friends and family (both blood and otherwise) this week about what a difference he made in their lives. I regret that he didn’t see me walk out of the dark onto the poolside on Auckland’s North Shore, safe and dry, after a night lost in the rain.

But he wouldn’t want me to regret anything, so maybe I should say: I am glad to have known him and to have known so many people who loved him. I am glad I got to experience so many of the things he wished for me. I am glad he kept my mother awake on the University Tournament train and I am glad she stopped when she thought, ‘Is that David Wright?’ at the bottom of Allenby Terrace, and I am glad she took him out for coffee. Cheers, Dad. Drive safely, and wear your seatbelt.

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