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Growing up in Laurel, Md., Isabella Whittaker started her athletic career as a competitive swimmer.

Credit: Chase Sutton

As Penn track freshman Isabella Whittaker begins her first year in the Red and Blue, her experiences have already exceeded her expectations.

Growing up in Laurel, Md., Whittaker started her athletic career as a competitive swimmer. It was not until high school that she started running and fell in love with the competitive sport. With both parents, an older brother, and a younger sister also runners, there is no shortage of speed in the Whittaker genetics. After doing both track and swimming for her first two years of high school, she ultimately decided that track was the sport for her.

“My sophomore year of high school, I realized how much I enjoyed track, and how it brought out a competitive side of me that other sports did not,” Whittaker said. “From there, I just got more and more passionate about running, and wanted to keep improving to be the best runner I could be.”

Whittaker knew early on that she wanted to continue running in college, and ended up being a top recruit in high school. The Penn track program’s energy and closeness are ultimately what made her want to be a Quaker.

“I would say the main thing that drew me to Penn was the tight-knit team,” Whittaker said. “At the other schools I visited, I sensed some disconnect between event groups, which is understandable since unlike other sports teams, everyone pretty much has a different job in a track and field program. I just really loved how the throwers are connected to the distance runners who are connected to the sprinters and so on, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Since being at Penn, Whittaker has already made her name known in the program. At the recent Penn Challenge, she set Penn’s second-best times in the 200-meter with a time of 23.76 and the 400m with a time of 53.54, taking first place and setting personal best times in each race.

“I’ve learned to be more aggressive, in a good way,” Whittaker said. “I think I ran kind of timidly in high school, not quite understanding the power that I had. With such a difficult year for everyone, I’ve learned to trust myself a lot more recently and just go after it.”

Despite having her senior year of high school cut short due to the pandemic, Whittaker decided that she was going to use the extra time on her hands to become the best runner she could be once she arrived at Penn.

“I’m really proud of how disciplined I was during the early months of the pandemic,” Whittaker said. “I’ve just now started seeing the benefits of that, so I’m just proud that at the lowest point, I was still able to go out and work my hardest, knowing it would pay off by the time I was able to compete again."

Looking for ways to improve the mental side of her running, Whittaker found that journaling and writing her thoughts down enhance her well-being both on and off the track.  

“The past year I’ve really tried to incorporate journaling into my daily routine, which has actually helped me on the track a lot,” Whittaker said. “I think that I’m a perfectionist when it comes to running, so within the past 12 months I’ve tried to take a step back, take things into perspective and center how I’m feeling, which journaling really helps with.”

Even though she was a recognized runner nationwide in high school, having been a three-time All-American, ranked fourth nationally in the 300m, fifth in the 500m, and sixth in the 200m, Whittaker knows that she has a lot to learn in order to have success at the college level and beyond.

“I really want to learn how to run correctly and efficiently, so I don’t have to work so hard in a given race,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t understand how technical the sport of running really is until I got here, so I’m definitely trying to improve on that.”

Her running career has had its ups and downs, but Whittaker sees failures as opportunities to grow and continue getting better.

“Even if I have a bad race, I’m pretty adamant in believing that it’s all a part of the process and the journey in getting to where you want to be,” Whittaker said. “We’re all so focused on getting a certain time and wanting to thrive, but it’s okay if sometimes it’s one step backwards, then two steps forward.”