Oct. 1, 2014
By Jake Maier `17
One of the world’s most prolific swimmers, Ian Thorpe – a five-time Olympic Gold Medalist, once gave a definition of losing:
“Losing is not coming in second. It’s getting out of the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I’ve won every race I’ve been in.”
Like the great “Thorpedo,” senior swimmer Courtney Whyte has also won every race, whether it is in the pool, in the classroom or across international borders. Relentless dedication and willingness to push limits have molded a walk-on freshman with an uncertain future into a fierce national competitor, team captain and a beacon of hope for some of the most destitute people in the world.
Whyte arrived in South Bend in the fall of 2011 as a preferred walk-on on the swim team, meaning that she had a spot on the team, but that was all she was guaranteed.
“I felt as though I had something to prove because of my lack of athletic scholarship,” Whyte says. “The moment I stepped foot on the Notre Dame campus, I was on a mission to prove my ability and potential.”
That mission drove her to wake up every morning before sunrise and give nothing but her best to become faster and stronger. One simple rule has guided her training: “Why bother going to practice if you aren’t going to work as hard as you can?”
“I used my goals as motivation to become better,” she says. “Being in the shadow of a lot of nationally elite swimmers made it difficult to stay focused on my goal, but by my junior year, I landed myself the athletic scholarship that I worked so hard to obtain.”
With a scholarship in hand, Whyte set about working towards a new set of goals, which she obtained by earning a trip to the 2014 NCAA Championships – the pinnacle of collegiate swimming – with the 200 and 400-medley relay teams. After swimming the butterfly stroke and helping both relays set school records at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, the Lafayette, California native guided the squads to two top-25 finishes at the national meet.
But achieving one life-long goal wasn’t enough. Whyte’s desire to work in the medical field was inspired by her mother, who is a pediatrician. Blending her love of swimming and athletics with her passion for helping others, she set her sights on being a physical therapist.
“Medical school was always in the back of my mind, but I knew my passion for athletics would lead me somewhere else,” she says. “As I dabbled in the field of physical therapy, working as a volunteer and aide in clinics, I found it was something that interested me because of its relationship to sports and movement, as well as the relationships I observed between therapist and patients.”
This summer Whyte, who is a science pre-professional major in the College of Science, gained experience in the physical therapy field when she traveled to Costa Rica for service work. The trip posed new challenges that the swimmer was unaccustomed to.
“I had no formal training in Spanish and had never traveled outside of the country,” she describes. “This was one of the first times, maybe other than an orgo (organic chemistry) test, where I was being thrown into the dark. Knowing I was leaving the country, by myself, not knowing the language or the culture was extremely nerve-wracking.
“What if I said something wrong, or did something that was culturally unacceptable? I was excited to meet new people and explore new places, but at the same time I was scared and nervous.”
It takes a lot to wrack the nerves of a young woman who just competed at the NCAA Championships, but this insecurity wasn’t going to keep Whyte from answer her calling to the less fortunate.
She traveled to Costa Rica with the organization International Service Learning along with seven other undergraduates aspiring to be physical therapists from around the country. The mission was to recruit patients for a clinic the group had set-up at a local church and to do anything in her capabilities to help.
The first few days were spent assisting families in a shantytown called Dulce Nombre, which had been ravaged by fire.
“It was a small, tight-knit town, so word spread quickly,” Whyte says. “By the second day we had roughly 30 to 40 people coming to us for help. Many of the occupants were suffering from sciatic nerve damage or joint discomfort as a result of toiling day after day to reconstruct their precious homes.
“It was humbling to see where these families were living. Most families had three or four kids and lived in a single room shack without a floor and walls made out of metal sheets. It really made us all appreciate what we have been fortunate enough to grow up with.”
Whyte noted that a lot of the projects were very hands-on, a big difference from the United States, where potential lawsuits require aides to be less involved.
“We were amazed with how willing people were to allow us to help,” Whyte says. “They were extremely grateful and would sometimes offer us things in return for our services. One family in particular offered us all avocados, which meant a lot after seeing their living conditions.”
For Whyte, the most eye-opening experience of the trip was working in Posada de Belen, a shelter for single mothers between the ages of 12 and 18. She worked mainly with the small children, testing them for neurological anomalies.
“It was very eye-opening to see these young girls kicked out of their homes by their parents and forced to live in this shelter,” she says. “The shelter provides the mothers with an education and practical skills in order to ease the transition to a normal life once they are released from the shelter around age 18.
“Most of the health problems were due to drug or alcohol abuse while pregnant. It was cool to see such a different side of physical therapy.”
During her last few days in Costa Rica, Whyte worked at an athletic clinic where she began to see the bigger picture and look at life from a different angle.
“These people live such simplistic lives,” she says. “They show little concern for their injuries, and these are injuries people back home in the U.S. would never go to work with. This trip allowed me to meet some amazing people and share my passion for helping with others around me.
“The people of Costa Rica live a life of `pura vida.’ This is a way of life, not just a phrase. It literally means pure life, but to Costa Ricans it means something more. It refers to the beauty of life and that no matter the situation one is in, there is always someone else out there less fortunate, which is something I have definitely tried to keep in mind since I’ve been back.”
Whyte’s personal statement for her physical therapy school begins, “Day after day I find myself willingly dragging myself out of bed before sunrise to dive into a cold pool, chase a black line back and forth and test my body’s limits.”
Only Whyte would dull her life down to “chasing black lines” in an attempt to humbly soften the significance of her achievements. She chases more than black lines every day – she chases her dreams and her passions, whether it be competing at NCAAs or bringing relief to people living in situations some of us can’t even imagine.