When Emma Wright competed in her first swimming competition for the Wheeler Typhons, she won her heat of the backstroke and therefore thought she won the race.
She didn’t understand that other swimmers in different heats still had a chance to beat her time and when they did, the 7-year-old was frustrated, confused and defeated. It was a feeling Tomiko Wright, Emma Wright’s mother, believes fueled her child and eventually helped her become the first state champion in Hobart swimming history.
“I’ve always had confidence in her, and I knew she could do it,” Tomiko Wright said. “The first time she ever swam, she was so angry that she didn’t win. But by the end of the season, she was winning those events.”
Nearly a decade after experiencing her first loss, Emma Wright — The Times' 2019 Lake County Female Athlete of the Year — has solidified herself as not only one of the best swimmers in the Region but the entire state. Throughout her sophomore season, she won Northwest Crossroads Conference titles and sectional championships in the 50-yard freestyle and 100 free. She also broke the record for the 100 free at both meets.
The 16-year-old capped off her remarkable campaign at the IUPUI Natatorium during the state finals by finishing ninth in the 50 free and claiming first place in the 100 free with a time of 49.95 seconds. Even though she was seeded first heading into her best event, Emma Wright said she was shocked she actually won.
“When I re-watch the video or look at pictures, I still can’t believe it,” said Emma Wright, who was the only Hobart swimmer to compete at state. “I think I watched the video (for the first time) a couple days after, and I just had a huge smile on my face. I still have a huge smile on my face.”
Ken Cawthon has only been the Hobart swimming coach for one season but already had a relationship with Emma Wright before she entered high school. He said he instructed her for about three years when she competed for the Hobart Tiger Sharks and commended her for never cutting any corners.
He added that he can probably count on one hand how many practices Emma Wright has missed since he’s known her, and although she’s already a state champion, he doesn’t anticipate her becoming complacent. Cawthon knows she wants to maximize her potential and said his biggest challenge is figuring out which strokes and events for her to focus on going forward.
“It’s a downfall for her that the state will only allow her to compete in two events at the state meet,” said Cawthon, who lauded Emma Wright as an all-around swimmer. “I think she could actually take a lot more events that she’s competing in to state if she was given the opportunity.”
Nathan Wright, Emma Wright’s older brother, shared the same sentiments as Cawthon and has seen firsthand how much upside she has. He also swims for the Brickies and remembers plenty of practices throughout their careers when they've competed head-to-head. He thinks her state title in the 100 free is only the beginning.
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“We all saw her finish but we were like, ‘No way,’ and then we all freaked out,” said Nathan Wright, who will be a senior next season. “It’s been a staple of mine to scream whenever I’m in the stands, ‘That’s my sister!’ at the top of my lungs. Everybody around us heard it. I don't think I've ever seen my dad cry, but he cried when she won state."
In addition to her own family and coaching staff, Munster coach Mat Pavlovich also took notice of Emma Wright’s historic campaign. Pavlovich has been the Seahorses’ swimming coach for 11 years, helping them earn another trip to the state meet this past season, and he thought the sophomore was very poised throughout the 100 free. He witnessed her strong showing during the NCC championships and said she should be proud of bringing a state title back to the Region.
“There were some really good athletes that she had to beat to win that event,” Pavlovich said. “I think she definitely turned some heads and definitely made a name for herself based on the type of competition that she had. It was a challenging year in that 100 freestyle.”
While Pavlovich had a chance to see Emma Wright win in person, School City of Hobart superintendent Peggy Buffington kept a close eye on her from back home. She recalls having car trouble during the state finals, and despite watching it on her iPad from the waiting room of a car dealership, Buffington said she couldn’t have been happier for Emma Wright.
“I went a little crazy in the waiting room,” Buffington said with a laugh. “People there were like, ‘What’s going on?’ and I started telling everybody. Pretty soon people from the showroom were coming back and congratulating our school corporation and her. It was a good moment.”
She considers Emma Wright to be a great example for all of the athletes in the Hobart school system and also said the swimmer’s demeanor hasn’t changed since winning a state championship. Emma Wright still puts in five two-hour practices every week, and Buffington said the city had to reschedule special events honoring her so that they didn’t interfere with her training schedule.
After the state meet, Emma Wright said she received a police escort when she arrived home, and a little over a week later she was honored by the Indiana House of Democrats. Cawthon said she was also recognized by the Hobart Tiger Sharks and has never hesitated to give advice to swimmers in her old program.
With her junior season on the horizon, Cawthon said his main message to Emma Wright has been for her to focus on herself. He doesn’t want her to try to validate other people’s raised expectations, and he’s certain that if she remains diligent, she won’t need to.
Two years into her prep career, Emma Wright has already made history at Hobart. Before it's over, she plans on making more.
“I have the conference and sectional records in the 100 free, so hopefully I can get the state record, too,” Wright said. “I just have to keep training hard because of course I want to do better. It would be incredible to keep winning.”