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In her final race for the Red and Blue, Bella Whittaker broke the Ivy League Women's 400 Meter record while finishing fifth overall at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships on Saturday. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

Although the official start of summer has not arrived just yet, it is evident that the stakes are already beginning to heat up. With several athletes blazing the tracks, Penn looked to make their mark in the coveted final competition of the collegiate season.

After a successful showing at the NCAA East Preliminaries a few weeks ago, women’s track and field took on the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships this week in Eugene, Ore. at University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. With three athletes in individual events and two relays to show for, the Quakers looked to add to an already unprecedented season for the program.

“This was an historic year to have 11 athletes compete across eight events,” said director and coach of track and field Steve Dolan. “It’s certainly a big challenge to get here … the team competed great in the prelims to get the opportunity to make it here to the final.”

On Thursday, the Red and Blue competed in the prelims looking to qualify for Saturday’s finals. Several Quakers competed across a myriad of events, including the 400-meter, 3000-m steeplechase, 4x100-meter relay, and 4x400-meter relay. 

In the 400m race, senior standout Isabella Whittaker looked to prove once more that she belonged on track and field’s biggest collegiate stage. To make it back for finals, Whittaker needed to place in the top two of her heat or have a fast enough time that would place her in the top nine. Indeed, Whittaker answered the call and finished second in her heat with a time of 51.05 seconds, only behind Arkansas’ Amber Anning. Overall, Whittaker placed eighth in the heats.

In the steeplechase, senior Olivia Morganti looked to rekindle the same magic from her Penn Relays performance that saw her run a program record time of 9:57.94. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be as Morganti finished with a time of 10:19.94, ending up 22nd overall. Nonetheless, Morganti earned an All-American Honorable Mention with the performance.

In the 4x100-meter relay, the squad consisting of junior Caia Gelli, Whittaker, sophomore Moforehan Abinusawa, and sophomore Christiana Nwachuku rose to the challenge amidst stiff competition. Going up against formidable schools, many of which from the SEC and Big 12, the Quakers held their own clocking in with a time of 43.88 for 17th place. The result earned an All-American Honorable Mention.  In the 4x400-meter relay, junior Jocelyn Niemiec, Whittaker, Nwachuku, and senior Aliya Garozzo finished fourth in their heat in the final event of the night. Finishing in a time of 3:30.56 seconds, the Red and Blue would finish 11th in the event but were DQ'd due two steps on or over their lane.  

Heading into the final on Saturday, the spotlight would once again be put on the Ivy League record-holder and one of the best to ever don the Red and Blue. The day would be headlined by Whittaker’s performance in the 400m final — the only race the Quakers would partake in on the evening. With the chips on the line, Whittaker delivered a performance of a lifetime, a race that will forever be remembered in Quaker history. Running from the outside position in lane nine, Whittaker described its difficulties but also how she overcame them.

“I got a tough pick of lanes which was a bit scary for me because obviously [I] can’t see anybody outside of me,” Whittaker said. “I kind of just had to trust my own race, running the best I can. I really pride myself for kind of staying cool, calm, and collected and running my own race.”

Starting off the race strong, Whittaker led the field around the first turn. It was then that the quartet of Arkansas Razorbacks slowly closed in on her. In fact, the super team from Arkansas would later set both a meet and collegiate record in the 4x400-meter relay by nearly four seconds, proving that the 400m campaign was no easy task.

“I knew that honestly with 150 [meters] to go that I was going to have to be a little more intentional with a snowball going home, which means that at 315 meters I try to pick up my knees and try to run just a little bit faster,” Whittaker said. “I think the pre-race a couple weeks back, I started my snowball a little late. I think this time I was like, let’s just be intentional with that, start that snowball and really come home strong.”

In the end, Whittaker’s strategy worked as she was able to make a final push in the home stretch to maintain her position, finishing in fifth place with a new personal best and Ivy League record time of 50.17. Just missing the magical 50-second barrier, Whittaker delivered when it mattered most and earned First Team All-American Honors. In what was her final race as a Quaker, Whittaker went out with a bang.

“It’s been an unbelievable career … [Whittaker] leaves not only as the Penn school record-holder in multiple events but also the Ivy record holder in multiple events,” Dolan said. “She’s just an amazing competitor and a great teammate … In a lot of ways it’s a legendary career, definitely the best in Penn history.”

Besides the 400m, Whittaker also had something to look forward to that day. Whittaker’s sister, Juliette Whittaker representing Stanford, competed in the 800m final. With her proud sister Isabella watching and cheering her on, Juliette took home first place in the 800m with a time of 1:59.61. With success seeming to run in the household, it turned out to be a memorable day for the entire Whittaker family.

Looking ahead, Isabella will now take on the Olympic Trials in two weeks’ time at the same location in Eugene, Ore. After running a world class time, Isabella has a realistic shot at Paris. She looks to give it her all one more time this season to accomplish a dream that only so few athletes can say they achieved – become an Olympian.