|Thoreau in Spikes
For Caitlin Kight '03, Haverford was fertile ground for her
varied interests, including biology, track & field, and poetry.
Fran Rizzo just lost a rare one.
Caitlin Kight, who received her Haverford diploma on May 18, was a coach’s dream, a strong, talented athlete who comes into the program to contribute in a couple of areas and then grows into a multidimensional leadership role over four years. “She came in here as a high-jumper and a sprinter and moved to middle distance and distance,” Rizzo says. “In between, she learned to throw, and (assistant coach) Doug Mason ’81 worked with her on the hurdles. She leaves a big void for us. To have someone like that doing that many events — and doing them well — will be hard to find. She’s the kind of athlete who could have made nationals but opted to help the team instead of pursuing individual opportunities in the heptathlon. She would be in the weight room three days a week and if our coaches weren’t available we’d still send freshmen there, knowing Caitlin would be there to supervise and help them out.”
Two weeks before commencement, Caitlin won her third straight Centennial Conference heptathlon championship, the grueling two-day affair featuring seven separate events: the 200m dash, 800m run, 100m hurdles, shot put, long jump, javelin, and high jump. She left Haverford as holder (or co-holder) of seven College indoor and outdoor track and field records, including the high jump.
“Even as a freshman, Caitlin just assumed a leadership role,” says Meghan Sullivan ’02, who is training for triathlons, working, and saving money for dental school at Temple University (she starts in August). Sullivan ran many of the same events and was Caitlin’s everyday running partner. “She is just so strong physically and mentally. She’s very confident and has a strong personality, but she’s personable at the same time. Everyone on the team looked up to her and she responded by achieving so much and by being supportive in practice, workouts, and at meets. Her limits are not that of a normal human being.”
It was Rizzo, Haverford’s longtime head coach of women’s cross-country/track and field, who was ultimately responsible for the successful recruitment of Caitlin Kight. He called her after he’d read a form she’d filled out indicating she was a high jumper and encouraged her to come and compete at Haverford. Caitlin was also interested in academic excellence, first and foremost. Kenyon and Denison appealed to her, but she also liked the idea of leaving Ohio for college. She also applied to Middlebury, UVA, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin. At her mother’s urging, Caitlin looked at Swarthmore (though she never did apply for admission) and then drove with her parents through the Haverford campus. “We were so close so we just drove up by the duck pond, around by the track and out. Everything was so green and beautiful and the buildings had such warmth. I just didn’t get that same feeling at Swat.” The difference for Caitlin holds even now, after completing her senior thesis at Swarthmore. “The professors are wonderful, I have friends there, and it’s a wonderful campus,” she says, “but I just didn’t get that warm feeling I got at Haverford. The vibe here really pulled me in. It feels less frantic, more laid back at Haverford, but it’s just as academically rigorous. It was just the right place for me.”
It also offered her an opportunity to run competitively and contribute to the program right away. That latter fact — and Rizzo’s persistence — brought Caitlin to Haverford, even though Kenyon had offered her a scholarship. She was also accepted at Macalester and Reed.
Haverford was also the right place for her athletic career to blossom under Coach Rizzo’s direction. Meghan Sullivan came in as hurdler and Caitlin, a high-jumper/ sprinter. Soon, Rizzo had both of them “trying” cross-country (they’d both run cross-country in high school) and middle-distance events. Before long, he had them into the heptathlon. “It was definitely hard to learn a lot of things, especially javelin and the shot,” Sullivan says, “but we were excited about things and went through multiple practices every day. We were usually the last people to leave the track at night.”
“I was skeptical about cross-country,” Caitlin recalls, “but he said it would be good for my track. He really pushed me and believed in me. I can think of few people who inspired that kind of confidence in me – my parents, a couple of professors, and Riz. He had faith in me. My coaches in high school never spent any one-on-one time with me; it was always a rah-rah team speech. It was amazing to see the kind of attention and focus Coach Rizzo brings to the program. He has a special pep talk and plan for each person on the team. To finish a race and get the Riz hug or the pat on the back is great. He always reserves them for special accomplishments.”
As much as Coach Rizzo knew he was getting a solid, devoted athlete, he didn’t know he was getting a serious birder, too. “You overlay a list of track athletes at this level with a list of bird watchers and you have a fairly unique individual,” he admits. At Haverford, Caitlin became the kind of athlete who would take her Sunday runs on the trails at the Tinicum National Wildlife Preserve, adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport; more than 280 species of migratory birds pass through the area each year. Her Haverford website has lists of species spotted or heard on campus — including double-crested cormorants on the duck pond.
Coming into the admission process, Caitlin had done her homework and knew of Haverford’s stellar biology program. She majored in biology despite the fact that Haverford’s biology department is geared more toward clinical research, not environmental science or wildlife biology. She struggled at one point and nearly transferred. Katie Unger ’03, a fellow biology major now doing summer research work (evolutionary genetics of the butterfly) at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, was one of Caitlin’s closest friends on the track team. Unger, too, was somewhat frustrated by the focus of the biology department since she, too, is interested in ecological and environmental science. In hindsight, both women realize they were building a foundation of knowledge. And as Unger sees it, most undergraduate biology programs have come to emulate Haverford in emphasizing molecular biology. “I learned some amazing things in lab that I’ll end up using in the future,” Caitlin says. “The professors were excellent and although they expect so much of you as a student, they give you the tools and confidence to figure it all out. I could feel myself rising to the challenge.”
Caitlin grew up as an only child in The Plains, Ohio, where her mother,
Stephanie, is an AP high school English teacher and her father, Fred,
works as a news editor for the Ohio University-affiliated public radio
station in Athens, Ohio. He is, Caitlin says, adept at finding quirky
stories in Ohio and periodically does freelance work for NPR. Both parents
were very supportive of her varied interests and encouraged her outdoor
activities as much as possible. She developed a love for the natural world;
her interest in environmental science and ecology stems from early exposure
to books (her grandmother was a librarian).