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After a back injury, this Penn senior’s record-breaking track success is ‘a long time coming’

Following a stellar indoor season, Bella Whittaker is carrying her success outdoors. She has her sights set on an NCAA championship — and the Paris Olympics.

Penn senior Isabella Whittaker competes at the 2024 Ivy League Indoor Track and Field Championships. She's set multiple program and Ivy League records this season and has Olympic hopes.
Penn senior Isabella Whittaker competes at the 2024 Ivy League Indoor Track and Field Championships. She's set multiple program and Ivy League records this season and has Olympic hopes.Read moreIvy League / Sideline Photos

Penn senior Bella Whittaker came into this year with a specific mentality: to “be that girl on the track.”

She’d lost some of that edge after a severe injury in her sophomore year, but she got it back in spades this season, particularly at a Boston University indoor meet in late January.

“When I think of BU, I remember just tunnel vision, like, I am trying to take up space,” Whittaker said. “That was my mentality: take up space and also put your name on the map. That’s been a common theme is put your name out there, show people what you can do. They don’t know, but you know, so let’s surprise them.”

Surprise them she did, as Whittaker ran a 51.69-second 400-meter dash, which then was the second-fastest women’s 400 time in the world and set school, Ivy, and facility records. That success has carried over to the outdoor season, as she set program and Ivy League records in the 4x400 relay (3 minutes, 29.64 seconds) and 4x100 relay (43.96) at the Florida Relays in March.

Now, Whittaker is aiming for a national championship — not to mention a shot at the Olympics this summer.

Devastating injury

Whittaker came out the gate hot. In her first-ever collegiate meet, she notched Penn’s second-best times in the 200 (23.76) and 400 (53.54). Later that season, she broke the program record in the 400 and earned honorable-mention All-America honors.

The native of Laurel, Md., was well on her way to becoming a star at Penn. But then disaster struck.

In 2022, during the winter of her sophomore year, Whittaker suffered a painful stress fracture in her back, which meant no land running for roughly six months.

“It was extremely frustrating,” Whittaker said. “It was harder than I thought it was going to be, to be completely honest. It’s quite challenging trying to weave myself through the expectations of everything, and really the expectations I had for myself and the expectations others had for me. I had a great freshman year, and I was ready to surpass that, so then having to halt in my tracks was really difficult.”

Before track, Whittaker was a swimmer in high school, and she returned to the pool while injured. After months of laps and aqua jogging, Whittaker made her track comeback during the 2022 outdoor season. Though she earned an outdoor first-team All-Ivy selection in the 400 and in the 4x400, not everything went as planned.

“It wasn’t an ideal season at any cost,” Whittaker said. “I was trying to get in shape while also competing, so it was a tough season for me. But I had to run myself back into shape and back into the competitive mindset, being out for as long as I was.”

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Whittaker ran closer to some of the times she was running in high school, and her confidence was shaken. Penn women’s sprints coach Chené Townsend admitted they probably moved a bit faster than they should have.

“At that point, she kind of felt somewhat like she didn’t quite belong anymore because she was not running as fast as she had run before,” Townsend said.

Townsend’s challenge was getting Whittaker to believe in herself. Her talent hadn’t gone anywhere, but the adversity made her question her abilities. It also was tough not seeing the results pair with the work she was putting in.

Little by little, though, the positive results piled up, and now Townsend describes Whittaker as “confident.” Enough so to think that she can be the best in the NCAA, something Townsend isn’t sure Whittaker believed, even as a freshman.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Whittaker said. “I’ve been kind of building block by block since my sophomore year. It’s been, I would say, a two-year journey of just trusting the process, not really seeing direct results, but knowing that will come later.”

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Olympic dreams

Whittaker will look to use her remaining eligibility, which she can’t use at Penn because of Ivy League rules against graduate students competing, at a different school next year. But before then, she has two major goals.

For starters, Whittaker and Townsend believe that she can be a national champion this spring. And Whittaker is confident about her chances at the Olympic trials this summer. She competed in them in her freshman year, running a 52.96 in the 400, but she’s a more seasoned competitor now.

“Freshman year, I dipped my toes in,” said Whittaker. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ looking at Allyson Felix, and [it’s] crazy I’m running the same event as her. I was really just wowed by everything, but this year, I want to be a part of that and really make a name for myself. And, obviously, we’re trying to make a team.”

Added Townsend: “I think she will do better than she did her freshman year. This year, it’s a part of the plan. And so the expectation is that we will be there and that we’ll be ready to compete really well.”