When Alex Wright walks across the stage and grabs his diploma Saturday, he'll be stepping into a world completely foreign and new.
Once he graduates from St. Ambrose, Wright — who is from Durant — will take off for China, where he'll become the strength and conditioning coach for the Chinese Olympic long track speed skating team, helping them train for the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The second youngest of nine children, Wright is the first member of his family to earn his bachelor's degree.
"Not only is this a really exciting time for me, but my parents and siblings are happy for me as well," Wright said. "They know this is what I've always wanted to do."
Now 26, Wright's path to this point has been slightly unorthodox.
A multi-sport athlete at Durant, Wright played baseball, ran cross country and wrestled for the Wildcats, setting the school mark for wins and pins in his senior season.
He graduated from Durant in 2010 and received his associate degree from Muscatine Community College in 2013. After that, Wright spent time working in manufacturing, serving as a full-time supervisor for 3½ years.
It was a good job, but something was missing.
"It wasn't what I wanted," Wright said. "I would rather spend my whole life doing what I want to do than spend one day doing what I don’t want to do."
With Wright's athletic background, he decided that a career path in sports was something he wanted to explore. He enrolled at St. Ambrose in 2017.
"When initially deciding to go to college, I was thinking about what I wanted to do and the first thing I thought of was what do I like?" he said. "I always liked playing sports, and I always liked training. I can remember always going out to the yard, and if I wasn't playing catch with my dad or my brothers, (I was) just throwing a baseball at a piece of tape for hours because I wanted to get more accurate."
While at school, Wright still worked part time at UPS and worked his way to serving as a part-time supervisor for the past 18 months. That work ethic was noticed by the faculty, including Dr. Bo Li, who is an assistant professor in sports management.
"He's a non-traditional student compared to other students," Li said of Wright. "He is a lot more mature compared to most of our other students here. I knew he was interested in this position and always wanted to work with the elite athletes."
It's largely because of Li the Olympic opportunity presented itself. Li is friends with Joop Wiersema, the head strength and conditioning coach for the Chinese speed skating team.
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About a month ago, Wiersema asked Li if there were any potential candidates for the open position, and Li inquired within the Kinesiology department. Wright's name was instantly suggested.
"He was very enthusiastic and excited about what he was doing. You could tell as soon as he got here he was excited about what he was working on," said professor Erica Thomas, who served as Wright's advisor. "He'd be willing and he'd be excited about the opportunity and wouldn't be afraid to take on something that could be kind of big."
Wright thought the job was a long shot, but after a strict selection process, he was hired two weeks ago.
"Not being afraid to take risks has paid off," Wright said. "Just being open about who I am, what my goals are and what I'm trying to do."
So now Wright — who has never been out of the country and who said California is the farthest he's been from home — is preparing to broaden his world.
There will definitely be hurdles.
Durant is a town of about 1,800 people while Beijing has more than 21 million.
Wright doesn't speak the language and has very little background in speed skating.
But with translators, the language barrier shouldn't be too bad. He's confident he can quickly learn how to train the muscles necessary to excel on the ice.
"Hopefully when I get over there, I'll have the opportunity to skate," said Wright, who interned with the St. Ambrose football team last fall. "I've thought about the fact that if I'm not trained in it and go out and skate, I'm going to have muscle soreness much worse than a trained skater.
"Feeling my own body, I'm going to understand what muscles I used and where I'm sore. ... That's something I like to think about a lot, how it feels doing the motions."
Wright isn't sure where this opportunity will lead after the Olympics but hopes he can continue working with the world's best.
"Getting to work with those athletes, their motivation is to be the best in the world," Wright said. "I want to work with the elite."