Penn women’s track and field senior Bella Whittaker left her competition — past and present — in the dust over the past two weekends, when she clocked in not one, but two Ivy League records in the 400 and 500 meter races.
At the Wesley A. Brown Invitational hosted at Navy last Saturday, Whittaker’s personal record (PR) of 1:10.12 led a 1-2-3 sweep by the Red and Blue, with junior Jocelyn Niemiec and senior Aliya Garozzo also setting PRs and taking second and third respectively. The Quakers finished with first-place finishes across five women's events. At the Penn 10-Team Select on Staten Island on January 13, Whittaker’s 400 meter time of 52.96 seconds set the Ocean Breeze Complex and program records, tied the Ivy League's indoor record, and is currently the second-fastest time in the NCAA this year.
Coming off of a strong fall training block, Whittaker said she had an idea based off of practice of where she was, but she hadn’t realized her fitness was as good as it turned out to be.
“Leading up to the season, I had written down a bunch of goals for myself, and Ivy League and school records were on there,” she said. “So, I definitely had my eye on it, but I just didn't know it would happen this quickly. The puzzle pieces and everything are kind of coming together, technique wise.”
Whittaker told The Daily Pennsylvanian that she was late to the sport as she grew up as a competitive swimmer, which might come as a shock given her long list of track accolades, including coming off of a back stress fracture to win the 400m at the Ivy Heptagonal Indoor Track & Field Championships her sophomore year and an appearance in the Olympic trials her freshman year.
She first added track to the mix during her freshman year of high school. By the time she reached her junior year, track and field had eclipsed swimming as her main sport, so she dropped the latter to focus on running.
“I was more so just showing up to track meets with the swimming training at the beginning, which fitness-wise actually was very complimentary,” she said. “But I decided to quit swimming to put all my energy into track and and be there a hundred percent because I knew I wanted to run in college."
She said Penn “ticked all the boxes” for her: people she vibed with, a competitive team, and a program on the rise.
Associate head women's track and field coach Chene Townsend commended the competitive energy and positive force Whittaker brought to the group.
“She's always trying to figure out how she can be a better version or the best version of herself individually on and off the track,” she said. “ I think that's what helps her to be so connected or keep trying to get even more connected with some of the people on the team.”
When asked about the strengths that played into her record-breaking performances, Whittaker said she has learned to put in the work from being an individual sport athlete for most of her life.
“Over the years, I've really tackled the mental aspect of the sport, and how anxiety can really have physical effects on the body in performance,” she said. “There was a time when I was really struggling with that piece and the mental aspect coming back from injury, and I really put in the work to try to figure out the things that work for me.”
A few of her staples include meditation right before race days and journaling the night before.
Townsend also attributed much of Whittaker’s recent success to her confidence.
“Her confidence is something that she kind of lost due to some adversity that she had previous to this season,” she said. “So, it's nice to see that back, and I think that's been super helpful for her in terms of trusting herself and knowing that she's put the work in.”
She added that they had not intended to break records going into the past two meets and were instead focused on execution of races.
Whittaker echoed the sentiment and stated that her biggest goal for the rest of the indoor season is to make indoor nationals.
“It’s hard because the entire emphasis is on the time I run,” she said. “I'm trying to think of it more in terms of the execution and having fun and just enjoying the competition. And then I think the time will come, because that's what I've done so far, and the times have come.”
Townsend agreed that Whittaker’s best this season is certainly yet to come, both indoor and outdoor.
Looking even farther into the future, Whittaker is excited for the Olympic trials and is currently undergoing the recruitment process again for her fifth and final year.