Dec. 10, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Todd Morgan still remembers hearing in the summer of 2009 that Catherine White was transferring from the University of Arkansas to UVa. He also remembers getting the news last spring that the NCAA had granted White a sixth year of eligibility.
"Those were two great days," Morgan said, laughing.
In 2009, Morgan was the cross country coach at Florida, one of Arkansas' rivals in the SEC. White ran in 2007-08 and 2008-09 for the Razorbacks and helped them win the SEC cross country title in each of those years.
As a sophomore, White captured the SEC cross country crown and helped Arkansas hold off runner-up Florida for the team title. In her final outdoor season at Arkansas, she won conference championships in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, after which she was named SEC women's runner of the year. With White in Charlottesville, the Gators won the SEC women's cross country title in the fall of 2009.
"She made my life miserable for a while," Morgan said.
They now work together. Morgan was hired in January to head the women's cross country program at UVa, where he's also an assistant coach in track and field. The Cavaliers' best distance runner on the women's side? That would be Catherine White.
"It's just a crazy turn of events," Morgan said.
Had White's college career unfolded as planned, of course, Morgan never would have had an opportunity to coach her at Virginia. She graduated from Northside High School in Roanoke in 2007 and enrolled at Arkansas expecting to be out of college eligibility after the 2010-11 academic year.
But, after transferring to UVa, where White was immediately eligible, she severely sprained her right ankle early in 2010. Complications from that injury, which ultimately required reconstructive surgery, kept White out of competition for most of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
She needed approval from the NCAA to compete for the Wahoos again in 2012-13.
"It was really, really exciting to get it," White said, "but at the same time, if I hadn't gotten it, I would have been OK, too. But it has been such a great year. I'm glad I got the year back."
She recently completed her final season of cross country, finishing second at the ACC meet and then 33rd at the NCAA championships to earn All-America honors for the second time in that sport. (White placed fourth at the NCAAs in 2009.) She's exhausted her eligibility for indoor track, so she's training now for her final season of outdoor track while pursuing a graduate degree in UVa's Curry School of Education.
Her brother, Richard, graduated from UVa in 2010. White earned a bachelor's degree in kinesiology in December 2011, and she'll finish work on a master's in that discipline in the spring.
"I've used my time well, at least," White said. "I look back at it, and I'm really grateful that I'm still here and that I've gotten a sixth year, and it's been a great avenue for my master's degree."
She smiled. "But at the same time, I obviously wish I could have finished in four years, like a normal person."
White, 23, acknowledges the generation gap between her and younger members of the team at UVa. It could be worse. "I'm young for my grade, thank goodness," she said. "I won't be 24 till the end of July."
By then she'll be a former college athlete. White has lofty goals for her final season at UVa. Last spring, competing in the ACC outdoor meet for the first time, White won the 10k and took third in the 5k. She went on to place 10th in the 10k at the NCAA championships, running the second-fastest time in school history.
She'd like to leave UVa with the women's school records for the outdoor 10k and 5k. They're held by Patty Matava, who ran the 10k in 32:58.64 in 1987, and Margaret Groos, who in 1980 ran the 5k in 15:51.24. Between them, Matava and Groos earned All-America honors seven times during their Virginia careers.
"That would be amazing if I could get one or both of those [records]," said White, whose best times in those races are 33:21.55 and 16:04.58, respectively.
White won 15 state titles in track and cross country at Northside and ranks among the greatest runners in Virginia High School League history. She stayed healthy in high school and through her first two years of college. Then came the day in Charlottesville, early in the spring of 2010, when White injured her right ankle while running downhill on a trail.
She took about a week off, then returned to training. "But my ankle was so loose, and other tissues were having to take on a lot of the work, and they couldn't do it," White said.
She developed plantar fasciitis, "because of this really loose ankle that wasn't functioning correctly. So we decided I should redshirt [during the 2010 outdoor season], since I hadn't redshirted at that point."
White ran off and on during the summer of 2010 but still had pain in her ankle and her leg. So she decided to redshirt during the 2010 cross country season, "since I'd already redshirted outdoor," White recalled. "I was going to be here a fifth year anyway."
By the start of the 2010-11 indoor season, White was ready to compete again, and on Feb. 4, 2011, she ran a personal-best 4:42.80 to win the mile at the VT Elite Meet in Blacksburg. A week later, however, during a 5k at the University of Washington's Husky Classic in Seattle, she suffered another injury.
"My ankle blew up," White said.
She returned to UVa on crutches, her right foot in a protective boot. White initially thought it was her plantar fasciitis flaring up, but an MRI showed additional problems, including a stress reaction.
"I took eight weeks off after that," White recalled. "So this is going into outdoor season, and I'm not even running a step. I tried to go run a minute after six weeks, and I couldn't even run a minute without pain, which is pretty frightening."
Finally she went to see Dr. Joseph S. Park, an orthopedic surgeon at UVa who specializes in feet and ankles. "He looked at my ankle for about 30 seconds and told me I had to get it reconstructed," White said.
"It ended up being actually pretty good news, because finally there was something going to be done that was going to fix it, instead of this, `We can rehab it to a certain point, but it's still going to break down eventually.' "
Dr. Park operated on White in April 2011. She would not be cleared to compete again until the 2012 outdoor season, but that was a small price to pay for being able to run without pain.
"Obviously there's a lot of blips along the way, coming back from surgery, especially when your calf muscle is non-existent," White said, "but overall [the rehab went well], especially with Coach Morgan coming in. He was very progressive and patient with me, and I ended up stringing together a really good outdoor season [in 2012]."
White came to UVa to run for Jason Vigilante, and he coached her until abruptly resigning from his post in November 2011. But the transition to a new coaching staff has been smooth, White said.
"It has gone really, really well," she said, "and when Coach Morgan came in, he sat down and wanted to know every stinking detail about the injury and how everything was going, to make sure we were doing the right things to get me back safely and also quickly. That hadn't been happening before. That was good, to finally have the training room and the coaching staff and me all on the same page. And so we were all working towards the same goal. And then it actually worked."
When he arrived at UVa, Morgan said, he knew little about White's health, only that she hadn't competed in about a year. He met with Shelley Blakey, an athletic trainer at UVa who has worked closely with White. Then he sat down with White to map out a training strategy.
"She'd started back doing some running," Morgan recalled, "but that was when the coaching transition was going on, so there was not a lot of direction for about six weeks, because everything was in limbo. She was actually starting to do quite a bit of running, and so the first thing I did was put the brakes on her really quick. She was just so excited to be back running, but I knew her ankle might not be ready for it, so that was a big thing."
Morgan often reminds White that, at this time last year, she had not resumed training. "I'm trying to keep her patient," he said. "She was really patient last spring, and I think that paid off, because things just kind of came to her. I think as we get going along, it becomes harder for her to forget that a year ago she still wasn't doing anything. But she's pretty mature and sharp."
The obstacles she's encountered at UVa have not lessened White's passion for running. She hopes to continue competing after college.
"I don't think I've reached my peak at all," White said. "I think the injuries did derail the progression I was going on, certainly. I essentially had to take two years off, because we couldn't figure out what the heck was going on with the ankle. But running's unique in the fact that a lot of the time people run the fastest out of college. So you kind of have to keep it in perspective and keep the big picture in mind, because it is really easy to get frustrated."
White has been frustrated at times during her college odyssey. Who wouldn't be? But she hasn't lost her sense of humor.
"It's been a unique college experience, that's for sure," she said, smiling.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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