Bella Whittaker (C ‘24) goes for gold. Compassionate and driven, Bella doesn't just run for herself, but she's paving the way to make the starting block a more inclusive space. Always a high achiever, coming in second is never an option for Whittaker. She may have come late to the track game, but she’s running to reach the ultimate finish line: the Olympics. Any hurdles she’s faced have only pushed her to come back stronger and faster than before. Watch out for Bella Whittaker as she leads the newest generation of our nation’s track stars and fights for equality and representation for athletes across Penn’s campus. 

Name: (Isabella) Bella Whittaker

Hometown: Laurel, Md. 

Major: Communications

Activities: Varsity Track and Field, Black Student–Athletes at Penn, Athlete Ally, Make A Play Foundation

What sports did you play growing up? How did you get involved in track and field?

I was not a track star until high school. Actually, I was a swimmer. I went to Kingsville, a private Catholic all–girls high school in Baltimore. It was a very high–achieving school, and up until my junior year of high school, I swam. I tried to do the dual sports thing through freshman and sophomore year. It was crazy—I would literally go from swim practice to track meets, and I had double practices every afternoon, hence why I stopped swimming. 

The summer before my senior year, I truly became dedicated to running track. Evidently a high achiever, this decision aligned with the rest of my family. I’m the third of four kids in my family. My parents met running at Georgetown, my older brother ran at Yale, and my little sister currently runs at Stanford. Once I made the decision to dedicate myself solely to track, it was new and exciting. I seemed to have more of a natural talent for it, and I was excited to where it was going to take me. 

What’s your favorite sports memory?

About a month ago, I ran my big lifetime personal record (PR) in the 400–meter, breaking the Ivy record, the school record, and the facility record. Now, I’m heading to nationals because of it! That was a big moment for me, because it was the culmination of a slow grind back to the top after an extreme injury in my sophomore year.

I got a really nasty, painful stress fracture in my back, and I was out for a while. I had just come off of a really good freshman season. I was in really good shape, and then I just had to stop everything for a couple months. This was really hard for me because I live as an athlete: Everything I do, I do with every part of me, diving into every challenge wholeheartedly. So, to get injured, especially after a really good season, one that was building momentum, I was left so hungry for more. It was truly heartbreaking. During that tough time, I was just trying to figure out what to do with myself to redirect my mind. 

I came back to track when I was healed, healthy, and ready to go. But I was running so terribly, well off my PRs. I remember thinking, damn, people always say how hard physically it is to return to running after an injury, but they never tell you how mentally challenging it is. That hurdle for me was truly uncharted territory. No one warned me about it, and it was just a shock. I had to do a lot of reworking, mentally trying to figure it out. 

It's kind of cliche, but I had to truly rediscover my why: why I was doing this, and trying to figure out how to get to where I wanted to be. 

I went through some dark places because it was just tough, thinking I had already peaked and that was it. I’m a very impatient person, like I want to do well right now. I tried to come back at the end of sophomore year, which went pretty terribly. Thankfully, junior year was, I would say, a really big transitional year for me. I learned a lot in that year. By the end of the year, I finally saw myself getting back in it. I had done a lot of the physical work, but more importantly, I realized that I had put in the mental work to really get to where I was. It still wasn't a great season, but it was, like I said, transitional. So then to come to my senior year and to do so well right off the bat, and then two weeks later to run a PR and make nationals was absolutely incredible. 

That moment took two years of my life [to reach], so that is why I say it's my most special sports memory. When I finished that race, I was like, oh my God, I made it. Everything went into that moment, all the training, physically and mentally, for two whole years. When I finally saw the fruits of my labor for the first time in a long time, I was simply so grateful and so proud of myself. It was undeniably a slow grind, spanning two years of pushing to rebound and surpass previous levels. However, the moment of crossing that finish line and shattering those records stood as a truly remarkable achievement. Even more so, the transformative journey leading up to it was nothing short of life–changing. 

Who’s a true role model for you, in athletics, academics, or truly any field?

My first thought was who got me through the injury, and the first one that came to my mind is my athletic trainer, Mo. The athletic training room is my safe space—I go there a lot. If I’m having any sort of issue, Mo is the person I turn to. He’s really been that person for me. He actually came to Penn right when the injury happened. When I first met him, I was very down and gloomy, and he was with me the entire time I was injured. I would say he really got me through that. 

A perfect example of Mo’s meticulous dedication is during the Heptagonal Championships the other weekend. My coach came up to me and said, “Listen, we’re trying to go for the win. How do you feel about running the 60, the 200 and the 400? It’s a pretty tough triple—no one really does it.” My first instinct was, “Of course, let's do it, anything for the team.” But on the day of, the schedule unveiled that I would have a mere 30 minutes in between each of my events. Before I panicked, Mo was on the ball as always, sitting my coach and me down and presenting a treatment plan detailed by the minute for quick recovery and reset. Instantly, I was in the zone again because I knew Mo had my back. After each race, I’d run over to Mo, throw off my spikes, he’d treat me, and then I’d be right back up and good to go. He’s always just been that person for me, so I’m very grateful.

Another person who I truly look up to in the track world is my little sister. She runs the 800, which is another beast in itself. The kind of athlete that she is, and the way that she goes about racing, is super inspiring to me. There’s no limit to what she can do and it’s really cool to see, especially since she runs the 800, a really hard race—it’s almost a sprint at this point, the way girls are running it. Just watching her throughout high school. She’s actually the 800 record holder at our high school. She’s actually crazy, she’s the shit.

You are obviously quite decorated as a track and field athlete, earning All–American in high school multiple times and winning many races throughout your NCAA career—what is the dream after graduating? Are you planning on taking your running career further?

I’m currently in the recruiting process again because I still have some eligibility left. I’m currently talking to a few schools to ideally run as a super senior and also get my master's in communications at the same time. I’m looking for a program that is a great transition into the professional world, like to a national team, and eventually the Olympics. That’s the goal. 

You were involved in Make a Play Foundation—tell me more about it: How did you first get involved in the organization? What have you done through the organization? What do you feel is your strongest role in their work?

I joined MAP the summer after my freshman year. It’s a cool program for pre–professional development for student–athletes. I started in the beginning with mostly interview prep type training. It wasn’t until junior year that I took on more of a captain role, where I led a group of student athletes in pre–professional development, and we did a lot of projects with partnering companies. I’m not involved anymore, but I loved my time with MAP. One of the biggest things I got out of it was meeting a lot of student–athletes from all over the country. Just the other weekend, I ran into a football player that used to be in my group, and it was so cool to know people from all over, at track meets and in general.

I liked to take on that role of captain. It was fun, and it was one of my first instances of being in a leadership position, so more than anything, I learned a lot about what it means to be a leader, what it means to hold people accountable, what it means to get things done as a unit, and to divide tasks up. All in all, I learned good tools for being a leader later in my career, with all the collegiate board positions I’m currently holding. They called us captains, and it was very much like a captain experience, which was beneficial to prepare me for being a senior on the team this year. 

You are also on the Board of BSAP at Penn and Athlete Ally. How do you feel being a leader in those communities has shaped your time at Penn? How do you feel it elevates your experience of being a Black, queer student athlete here at Penn?

I do two big things on campus outside of running track: first is BSAP. When I came to Penn, it didn’t exist, which is crazy. It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year, two seniors started it, and they reached out to me to get me involved and help get it off the ground, and now I’m the vice president. I mean, I love it. I wanted to find a space, like I usually do, in places I’m living in, to find pockets of community, with similar life experiences. Carving out those spaces is important to me, so being part of BSAP is really important to me. There’s only 100 of us Black student–athletes at Penn, which is a crazy stat. The fact that people are shocked by that number, though, shows that we definitely have a great presence on campus. 

One of the things that drives me now while I’m on the board is trying to increase engagement and also trying to foster a community where Black student–athletes are being supported by their fellow peers. Also, we always aim to serve as a touch space for any issues Black student–athletes face here at Penn. 

It’s super empowering, to be both a leader of BSAP, and also to be part of Athlete Ally, my second major involvement on campus. Queer athletes aren’t always talking about being queer, especially here at Penn. You don’t really see a lot of that, so it’s been very empowering to be on the board especially, because it shows that you’re proud of it, and everyone sees that. And being on Athlete Ally’s board is very interesting too, because I’m the only Black queer one there. I feel it’s important to exist in both spaces, as a queer woman in BSAP and as a Black woman in Athlete Ally because it has taught me to stand in my identity and feel really confident in that—and run with it. And by extension, being an athlete and a really successful athlete at that, I am proud to stand in my identity through all of my accomplishments.

You’re quite a busy person—what do you enjoy doing for fun, to destress?

I do love a good thrift. I’m trying to really rework my wardrobe, donate stuff to Goodwill, and really lean into more sustainable clothing practices. Other than that, I love to hike. I’m a big outdoorsy person. Every time my mom comes to visit, we always go hiking nearby. At home, we go on hikes together with our dog a lot. Funny enough, I will not go out on a run. I'm strictly a track girlie. 

Where do you see yourself five years from now? 

I definitely want to see this professional athlete thing through. I feel like I still have a lot of potential in this sport. I’m really excited for it. The programs I’m looking at are really good transitions to the professional world, and they have professional groups running with them.I want to go to a place where the athletes are like–minded and they’re all trying to get to the Olympics.

In terms of career, as I mentioned before, I want to get my master's in marketing, which wasn’t something I initially planned, but when the opportunity arose, I quickly got on board. And of course, as you know, I really love the sports world, so I’m looking now to have a career in sports marketing, specifically in DEI, which would really merge all my passions into a career. It would be fun to market to people like me, using my personal experiences and my communications degree.

Lightning Round

Pre–race ritual: Meditation, always

Soundtrack to your life/fav album: Ctrl by SZA

Favorite thing to do out in Philly: I love to go to art museums, such as the Barnes Foundation Museum or the Rodin Museum.

Favorite spot on campus: The athletic training room

If you could live anywhere, where would it be? I would love to live out in California for a bit.

Best class you took at Penn: Media and Masculinity by Dr. Balaji.  It was really interesting.

Favorite professional athlete: Allyson Felix, 'cause she’s kinda lit.

Earliest you ever had to set your alarm for practice, lifts or meets: I actually practice in the afternoon, from 3–7 p.m., which is so lucky, I know, but for travel meets, I’ve had to wake up as early as 4 a.m., which is not fun.

Favorite post–game snack: I actually have a really bad sweet tooth. I’ll eat hella ice cream when I get home—I’ll get the s'mores flavor from Ben and Jerry’s a lot, or Nerds clusters, too. 

There are two types of people at Penn: Nerds and dorks.

And you are? A dork.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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