by Thom Van Vleck
You may not know who Dr. Russell Wright (D.O. Doctor of Osteopathy) is, but Tommy Kono, Bob Bednarski, Tommy Suggs, Gary Glenney, Norbert Schmansky and many others probably owe him half the hardware in their trophy cases. Dr. Wright made his living as the team Physician for the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Pistons. But he is best known to weightlifters as the team physician for five USA Olympic Weightlifting teams and countless World Championship teams. He did much of this by traveling to these events on his own dime and providing a lot of the treatment for free. The lifters he treated often commented that he would tell them he’d “send them a bill” and the bill would never come.
Dr. Wright did back surgery on Schmansky and solved Kono’s knee problems to allow them to further their great careers. He employed Osteopathic manipulation in his work with many other lifters and was there when Bednarski dislocated his elbow so badly at an international meet in Canada. It was typical to put the dislocated joint in a cast and allow to heal, but Dr. Wright took the cast off once back home and worked with the injury with light exercise, massage, and Osteopathic manipulation. This could have ended his career, but Bednarski won a World Championships after that! Wright was an athlete himself having competed in football and basketball in college and a short pro career after that and he felt that gave him insight into athletic injuries and needs. He was also known to be able to motivate the athlete in his recuperation and had a deep understanding of sports psychology helping athletes who were devastated by their injuries forge successful comebacks.
Dr. Wright is credited with pioneering the “medical manager” concept. It seems logical now, but until Dr. Wright came up with it, it was not practiced. Simply put, someone trained in sports medicine would assist the coach in all medical decisions as a direct consultant. Osteopaths like Dr. Wright were pioneers in sports medicine. He was following in the footsteps of Dr. Wilbur Bohm who was the first sports medicine specialist and he graduated from the school I work at, A.T. Still University which is the founding school of Osteopathic medicine. Dr. Bohm was the team physician at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics for the U.S.A. track team and assisted Jesse Owens in his historic run of 4 Gold Medals and the FIRST ever full time professional sports team doctor! Dr. Wright was part of that heritage of sports medicine and his role in the 1956, ‘60, ‘64, ‘68, and ‘72 Olympics would continue that tradition.
Russell Wright was the president of the Medical Committee of the International Federation of Weightlifting and Culture and conducted many seminars on treating weightlifting injuries. In 1966 he conducted a seminar in East Berlin, East Germany for Doctors from 92 nations. He was a member of Sports Medicine (an organization that Dr. Bohm was a founding member) and was a delegate to the 16th World Congress of Sports. He made most of these trips on his own. His wife always accompanied him and they were considered real friends and ambassadors of Weightlifting. He made dozens of these types of trips over the years. Dr. Wright often joked that he kept “retiring” over and over again.
Dr. Wright graduated from the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Des Moines University in 1929 and practice medicine for 7 decades as he lived well into his 90’s. The Des Moines School was the second Osteopathic school ever and was founded in 1903, now there are over two dozen D.O. schools across the U.S. and they represent an ever increasing percentage of Doctors in the U.S. They have all the same rights and privileges of an M.D. plus they have to know Dr. Still’s Osteopathic principles as well. Dr. Wright represented the type of “forward thinking” that has made D.O’s so popular. It is estimated in the near future D.O’s will represent 1 in 5 Doctors and they are a large part of the sports medicine world due to Doc’s like Dr. Wright and Dr. Bohm.
Dr. Russell Wright was a true friend of weightlifting as a sport, but was a better friend to the lifters. He also wrote books including “How to Become and Olympic Champion” where he tried to integrate not only exercised but every aspect of being a top athlete into one book (Diet, sleep, etc.). I hope you enjoyed reading about a real unsung hero of USA weightlifting.