From this week's Print Edition

Getting A Jump On the Rest Of Her Life

South Pasadena’s Claire Kieffer-Wright Is Wrapping Up A Sensational Athletic Career at the University of Michigan and She Says the Journey Began at So Pas High School
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Claire Kieffer-Wright was a star athlete at South Pasadena High School and took that excellence into her college career at the University of Michigan where she evolved into a two-sport star. She reflects fondly on her SPHS days. Courtesy photo

She is one of South Pasadena High School’s most decorated athletes and the accomplishments and honors have kept rolling in since Claire Kieffer-Wright traded in her Tiger black & orange for Michigan’s iconic maize & blue. The San Gabriel Valley lifer—she was born in Huntington Hospital and has called South Pasadena home all of her 23 years—Kieffer-Wright attended Monterey Hills and Marengo Elementary Schools. South Pasadena Middle School and then of course SPHS, where she graduated in 2014.

The University of Michigan came calling and it’s been mostly Ann Arbor ever since.

Kieffer-Wright made a name for herself as a volleyball player and a high jumper; athletic pursuits that require getting one’s self as far off the ground as possible. But it was a calling that came comparatively late in her athletic career.

“I was not very athletically gifted before high school,” Kieffer-Wright said with a chuckle. “I did compete in the yearly all-city track meet but at the time, I didn’t realize how I needed to train for more than one day a year to compete at the next level.”

Always tall for her age, Kieffer-Wright standing at 6 ft. 1 inches made the varsity volleyball roster as a freshman and also competed on the varsity track team.

Claire Kieffer-Wright was a star player at So Pas High School. Courtesy photo

“I had no idea how to really do anything in track,” she said. “I was just tall and kind of fast. I learned how to high jump that year and fell in love with it. We also won the Rio Hondo League championship as a team and I went to the CIF Master’s meet, but didn’t quite make it to state.”

That changed quickly. In her sophomore year, Kieffer-Wright, a middle blocker, began to make an impact on the volleyball squad, which made a respectable CIF run. But partly due to her contributions, the Tiger girls’ track team won the Rio Hondo League and CIF team championships in the spring of 2012. Individually, Kieffer-Wright leaped a then-best 5’10” to win the State high-jump title.

She worked with Tiger track Coach Eugene Hutchinson in an effort to become eligible to compete in the 2012 Olympic track and field trials but fell short of the minimum jump height to make the trip to Oregon. 

The volleyball team continued to improve her junior year, but the Tigers couldn’t get past the first round of the CIF playoffs. No such barrier existed during the track season of 2013, as Kieffer-Wright again led the Tigers to a Rio Hondo league championship, scoring in both the high jump and as a member of the 4 x 400-meter relay team, which placed eighth in the State championships. During her junior year, she cleared 6’0” in the high jump for the first time while winning the annual meet at Mount San Antonio College.

Claire Kieffer-Wright was a prolific scorer for So Pas High School varsity volleyball squad. Courtesy photo

Kieffer-Wright had become an established force in the middle for the Tiger volleyball team by the time her senior year rolled around and in the fall of 2013, South Pasadena won its first Rio Hondo League championship in 31 years and made it all the way to CIF Division 2AA semifinals. Kieffer-Wright was named an Under Armour second team All American, was Most Valuable Player of the Arcadia Volleyball Invitational Tournament and was named a Top 50 recruit by Prepvolleyball.com, along with a flurry of other local awards.
“With my senior year wrapped up in volleyball I turned to my final year of track to make it the best I could before furthering my career at Michigan,” Kieffer-Wright said. “I did jump 6’0” again, but after a long 4 years, I suffered a season-ending injury right after the CIF preliminaries.”

Before graduating, Kieffer-Wright was twice named the female track athlete of the year.

She reflects fondly on her time at SPHS.

“Our CIF team track title was fun to win because we did it as a unit,” Kieffer-Wright recalled. “However, the state title was definitely my most accomplished. I remember telling my coach that I wanted to win after I realized how far I could make it in the high jump after my freshman year and then went out and achieved it.”

Hutchinson remembers Kieffer-Wright for, among other attributes, a strong work ethic. 

Claire Kieffer-Wright was a top graduate at SPHS. Courtesy photo

“Claire is one of the hardest working individuals that I have had the pleasure of coaching,” he said. “Not only does she work extremely hard, her ability to manage stressful moments gave her an edge that truly made her a special athlete. In a sport that can be extremely individualistic, she was still the ultimate teammate, which is why she has been very successful as a dual athlete at the University of Michigan.”

Michigan head volleyball Coach Mark Rosen must have noticed the same qualities and asked Claire to make the trip to Ann Arbor. Before she knew it, Kieffer-Wright was a Wolverine. Before long, she was a rare two-sport athlete.

“Track and field recruits a little differently,” she said. “I didn’t really talk to the track coach until I was already on campus.”

She described her time there as “a wild ride.”

“There have been a lot of experiences and opportunities,” she said. “As a member of the volleyball team, we participated in a lot of huge Big Ten matches and I have had some amazing moments in my four seasons with the Wolverines. On the track side of things, each year has gotten better and better. Freshman year was uneventful, a few individual wins here and there, a couple team wins. Sophomore year, Michigan won the Big Ten team track & field title in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. I took third in the high jump during my sophomore outdoor season. Junior year I was able to take home an individual title in the outdoor season for high jump. My last indoor season, in the winter of 2018, I also won the high jump, but suffered from an injury that made my first NCAA track appearance a little shaky and I did not compete in the 2018 outdoor season. I will have one more year of eligibility for outdoor in 2019 which I am very much looking forward to.”

Kieffer-Wright was also a star on the volleyball court. She played in 20 matches, including 16 starts, during her freshman season, and by the time her sophomore year came around she was firmly embedded in the starting lineup at middle blocker. She has received a host of honors and awards, including being named an honorable mention All-American by several different organizations. While Rosen spoke with reverence about his departed player, he seemed most impressed that Kieffer-Wright was named a captain for her senior year in the fall of 2017.

“She not only developed into a great attacker, but was also a great leader,” he said. “That was a very pleasant surprise for us. Claire was very instrumental in the success of our team. She was a very special player and an incredible athlete. To be a two-sport athlete at this level is amazing and I can say that it never affected her volleyball.”

The Wolverines are currently wrapping up Big Ten action and Kieffer-Wright, who is still living in Ann Arbor, will be practicing with the Wolverines while another middle blocker tends to an injury.

“It will be great to have her back in the gym,” Rosen said.

Kieffer-Wright graduated from Michigan this past spring, but has one class left to finish and is also sticking around for the 2019 outdoor track and field season, which begins in March.

“Michigan has provided me with amazing opportunities to further myself as a student and an athlete,” she said. “I have been able to travel to Europe on a team made up of other players in the Big Ten and with a collegiate USA team with girls from other conferences as well to form a team that was able to clinch a gold medal at a Global Challenge tournament. 

Above all, I have made lifelong friends and extended my family to all the wonderful teammates I have had the opportunity to get to know so well here at Michigan and for that I am truly grateful for this university. I was humbled to receive an All-American honorable mention for volleyball and an All-American second team for track and field my senior year. In my senior preseason with volleyball, I was chosen to the All-Big Ten preseason team, and also as the All-Big Ten post season team. I was also a captain of the track team my junior year and again this coming season.”

She received her degree in communications.

“It was hard for me to settle on something because I had no idea what I wanted to do at all, and sometimes I still don’t,” she said with a chuckle. “But when I found my area of study, I very much enjoyed learning about media and relationships and all the surrounding fields. I also had the opportunity to go on a career venture this past summer with our wonderful academic staff that focuses on helping student-athletes build networking connections and think about our life after sports.”

Volleyball teammate Katherine Mahlke was also roommate Katherine Mahlke for three years.

“Claire is certainly a talented athlete, and it’s been fun sharing and witnessing her collegiate success these last four years,” Mahlke told The Review. “She was super easygoing and very considerate of all of us in the house. The two of us had our fun, sharing simple roommate moments together.  From cooking dinners to late night ice cream runs to Family Feud marathons, getting to know her outside the volleyball gym, allowed us to get to know each other as people which helped our friendship grow deeper. I’m grateful I was able to have Claire as a roommate for three years because my experience at Michigan would not have been as fun without her.”

Claire is the daughter of Laura Kieffer and Jeff Wright. She has an older brother, Quinn Kieffer-Wright.

Mitch Lehman

With over 22 years in publishing and a long time local, Mitch Lehman is a frequent contributor to the South Pasadena Review and Quarterly magazine. He has received two independent Pulitzer Prize nominations and in 2016, Mitch won 5 awards in the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Better Newspapers Contest.

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