By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When it came time for Catherine White to pick a college, she didn’t consider the distance that separated Fayetteville, Ark., from her hometown of Roanoke — about 1,000 miles — to be a negative.
In fact, she says now, the fact that the University of Arkansas was a long, long way from Northside High School appealed to her.
“I kind of wanted to get out and explore a little bit,” White recalled the other day at University Hall. “And then, obviously, Arkansas has such a rich track-and-field tradition. You go out there and everything is amazing. It has a top-notch track, and everything is just prestigious looking.
“It just looked exciting, and it was something I’d never put myself in before, and I guess I thought that was cool.”
From an athletic perspective, White thrived at Arkansas. As a sophomore in 2008-09, she won Southeastern Conference titles in cross country and in the outdoor 5,000 and 10,000 meters, after which she was named the SEC women’s runner of the year.
“But other aspects of my life I was unhappy with, and so there comes a point when running can only take your life so far,” White said.
Once she started looking at her options, it didn’t take long for White to settle on Virginia. As a phenom at Northside, where she won 15 Virginia High School League titles, she’d seriously considered UVa before choosing Arkansas. Moreover, her brother, Richard, and a cousin, Helen Vasaly, already were at the University.
“It just seemed like this would be the best fit for me, and the best life situation for me,” White said, “and it’s proven so, so far.”
She got her release from Arkansas in late July. Less than a month later, she was a student in Charlottesville.
“It was definitely a crazy couple of weeks, to say the least,” White said, smiling.
Richard White is 13 months older than Catherine, and they were close growing up. They’ve enjoyed their reunion.
“It’s been very good, actually, to have her not so far away,” said Richard, a fourth-year who’s a resident advisor in Humphreys dorm.
Catherine said: “We hang out all the time now, which is really strange, because we hadn’t for three years, I guess. It’s been really nice. I get to meet all of his friends. I finally met his girlfriend last week. Little things like that, I was missing out.”
White’s credentials as a runner notwithstanding, UVa coach Jason Vigilante did not immediately offer her a spot in his cross country and track programs. He knows the importance of team chemistry, and he needed to learn more about White. Vigilante didn’t arrive at UVa until 2008, so he hadn’t recruited White when she was at Northside.
“I think he was concerned with making sure it was a good fit and that I was the right person for this program and a good person for this school,” White said.
Vigilante concluded that White would satisfy all of those criteria. He’s even more convinced of that now.
“In every aspect she’s been a positive addition,” Vigilante said. “She’s a great runner, but I truly think it’s who she is as a young woman — how she smiles, how she tries to include everyone in her daily communication — that means a lot more to me.”
White wondered if her new teammates would accept her. She need not have worried.
“The girls here have been awesome,” she said. “They’ve all embraced me. I’ve been making amazing friends. They’ve really made the transition a lot easier and very comfortable.
“That was a concern of mine: going into a team that’s already well-established and stirring things up, but I think all the girls here are very accepting. They’re concerned with running fast and not too much about the drama involved with it.”
White’s debut as a Wahoo comes Saturday morning, at the George Mason Invitational in Centreville. Her potential impact on UVa’s program “from a performance outlook is just incredible,” Vigilante said.
Had White performed for UVa at the NCAA cross country and outdoor track championships the way she did for Arkansas in 2008-09, the University would have finished seventh, not eighth, in the Directors’ Cup race.
Despite what White calls “all the craziness” of her summer, she trained well and is in excellent shape. The ACC cross country championship is probably a realistic goal for her, White admits, but she says feels no pressure.
Credit her new surroundings.
“Here, when I come to practice, I actually look forward to it,” White said. “There’s such a great environment here. We work so hard here. It’s just a good place to be.
“And I’m not saying Arkansas wasn’t a good place to be. I liked it for two years. I’m grateful that I went there and I had the opportunities that they gave me and provided for me, but there were definitely times at the end where it was just time for me to be somewhere else.
“I’m really happy. Honestly, I’m very happy I made the choice.”