A popular children's gymnastics teacher drowned in Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, Aug. 1, his family has confirmed.
Russell Wright, 57, taught Palo Alto children for a decade at Gym Fit for Little Ones at the Lucie Stern Community Center.
He was at a Merced River swimming hole with his daughter when currents carried him downstream. Wright's foot became caught between two boulders and he drowned, his sister, Moria Peters, said.
Wright's 20-year-old daughter, Monica, was with him for their annual trip. They loved to swim in rivers and often went snorkeling, Peters said.
On Wednesday they were alone in the spot near the entrance of Yosemite when the accident occurred. His daughter sustained minor injuries while trying to rescue Wright. After she realized she could not safely free him, she sought help, Peters said.
"It was a real ordeal. He was her best friend and her entire world. When they left here they drove out of here laughing. He was probably as happy as he ever was moments before he died," she said.
Four divers were brought in to free him. Park staff helped his daughter and provided her with a counselor until family arrived, Peters said.
"We're really grateful to all of the people involved in the rescue attempt," she said.
Wright taught toddlers and kids up to age 12 a creative, ever-changing gymnastics program that was meant to open them up to the joys of gymnastics and self-expression rather than turning them into professional athletes, she said.
"He was teaching children how to be children," she said. "Rusty always tried to draw out from everyone their highest creative potential. He had this ability to get people to open up to the natural world."
Wright's nieces remembered him as a fun-loving uncle who was always very careful about letting them into the water. On outings he would test any swimming holes for their safety before letting the children go in, they said. He never lost his childlike sense of play and still enjoyed rope swinging, his family said.
Peters said he was an "extraordinary father" to Monica and his eldest daughter, Rachelle Thomas, 28, of Springfield, Ore.
"His two girls both loved him so much," Peters said.
He attended Aragon High School and Walden School in San Mateo, where he had also taught rope swinging, she said.
Wright lived in San Mateo with his mother, Elsie Wright. She said his death is the hardest thing she's ever dealt with.
"Everybody that knew him was extremely fond of him. He had a personality that just seemed to mix with everybody," she said.
Wright loved music and was a well-known local guitarist for many years, filling the home's family room with instruments of all kinds, she said. He was a composer and guitar teacher who wrote and performed avant-garde improvisational jazz.
Peters said her brother was extremely bright, but he initially had trouble in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. But his introduction to guitar at age 14 and his love of gymnastics opened up his world.
As a boy he loved to climb a large tree in their yard and walked along the top of the backyard fence. His remarkable agility earned him the nickname "Monkey Boy," she said.
Wright would hop the fence and sneak into the adjacent College of San Mateo gym. He taught himself gymnastics there, she said.
Steve Peters, his brother-in-law, said he has lost a brother and his best friend of the past 38 years. Wright was a consistent friend, not someone who comes and goes in life, he said.
Moria Peters said the kind of friend her brother was is reflected in his care for a friend who has had long-term cancer.
"Every Thursday Rusty would make sure he had that day free. He would cook him a big breakfast and play music or take him on a hike. His friend said that the energy he got from playing music that one day a week saved his life," she said.
Parents whose children took lessons from Wright also expressed sadness.
Gabrielle Conway said Wright's death is a huge loss for the children. Her daughter, Abigail Brown, was in his class.
"My daughter absolutely adored Russ. Russ was so amazing. A gentle giant. My daughter loved being free to do what she wanted in his class. It was a class full of joy," Conway said.
Personnel at Lucie Stern on Saturday expressed shock and sadness when they learned of his death.
Trudi Wallick-Horrocks, an ambassador for Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo and lunchtime-relief employee at the zoo, said she would stick her head in the door at the Stern Ballroom to watch Wright teaching the children. Wright was highly creative and had magic with the children, she said. He always came up with new designs and ways to rearrange equipment to give the children a new experience, she added.
"He was always like sunshine whenever you saw him. It was so much fun to watch. It is a huge loss. He had a special way with children, and you could see that he loved what he did. It was just seeing that spark and that smile. I wish my kids were young enough to attend. They would have enjoyed that thoroughly. The children will be crushed and their parents will be even more," she said.
Wright is survived by his mother, Elsie Wright, daughters Rachelle Thomas and Monica Wright, sister (Nancy) Moria Peters "and a large and loving extended family and many grieving friends," Peters said.
A memorial service and vegetarian potluck for Wright will take place Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 1 p.m. at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. It is open to the community. Anyone with stories or music to share is welcome to participate.