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Whitney Johnson-Courtright sat down and breathed a big sigh of relief after speaking to 150 foster children enrolled at San Pasqual Academy, a unique residential school for high school-aged kids.
She had delivered an inspiring talk about her own life as a foster child, her track and field career at U.C. San Diego that finished as the 2008 NCAA Division II triple jump champion and National Field Athlete of the Year, and her goal of working toward a medical degree to become a hospital trauma room surgeon.
“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’ll take competing in the national track meet over that any day.”
Johnson-Courtright spoke at the invitation of Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer and his wife, Alicia. The Jammer Family Foundation hosted its fourth annual Thanksgiving dinner last week for San Pasqual Academy’s students.
If Johnson-Courtright, 22, was your stereotypical overachieving student athlete, her fear of public speaking could be perceived as cute. But if you know her life story, national track meets and public speaking must be the first two tasks confronted she’s ever found daunting.
When Whitney was 11 and living in Bakersfield, the police came to her mother’s place of employment and took her into custody. Her mother had been in and out of prison for embezzlement, and she was on her way back.
But this time there wasn’t another adult at home with Whitney and her eight siblings. Whitney’s mother had separated from her stepfather in a manner that left him unaware of the children’s whereabouts. Whitney’s biological father had been institutionalized for mental problems when she was three.
With their mother gone and not coming back, Whitney said she and her older brother, then 13, and older sister, then 14, knew what would happen if authorities learned they were living without a parent or guardian.
“They would split us up,” she said. “We wanted to stay together as a family.”
So they concocted a plan that would keep together the nine kids ranging from ages 6 to 14. And they pulled it off for three years.
“We tried to remain inconspicuous,” Johnson-Courtright said. “We slid the rent payments under the door to the landlord. We made family time our study time. We knew we couldn’t slip up with bad grades at school because that would mean a parent-teacher conference.”
Whitney and her older sister did odd jobs as babysitters or doing yard work in the neighborhood. Her brother worked as a grocery store bagger.
Whitney also assumed the duties of paying bills when she quickly displayed a knack for understanding when and how to make payments.
“My older sister was the mother, my brother was the workhorse and I was the brains,” Johnson-Courtright said. “When we were grocery shopping, we had to avoid the ice cream aisle so we only bought good food. Shopping for clothes (for her younger siblings) was the hard part.”
When the kids were finally found out, it was fitting Whitney’s education-driven goals led to the denouement. She was serving school internship when a teacher volunteered to give her a ride home.
Coincidentally, there was a disturbance in the neighborhood that brought out the police just as Whitney and her teacher pulled up. Although none of Whitney’s siblings were involved in the incident, her teacher got out of the car and was on the scene long enough that the cover story began to unravel.
What happened next wasn’t a surprise.
“We were split up all over the state,” Whitney said. “I was able to keep in touch with my older siblings, but I’m just now re-establishing contact with my younger siblings. Some of my family never knew I went to college or got married.”
Whitney met her husband of two years, Nick Courtright, because Nick’s mother was friends with Christine Miller, who became Whitney’s foster parent and track and field coach at South High in Bakersfield.
In 2004, Whitney graduated with a 4.65 grade-point average (adjusted for honors classes) and won the California Interscholastic Federation Female Student-Athlete of the Year Award. It is the state’s most prestigious high school student-athlete honor and was presented by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When she enrolled at UCSD with a heavy course load for degrees in Human Biology and Psychology, she didn’t plan to compete for the Tritons.
Becoming a doctor was her primary ambition.
But when UCSD women’s track coach Darcy Ahner learned Whitney was on campus, she pestered her with so many phone calls to come out for the team that when Whitney finally relented, Ahner subsequently referred to her as a “drag-on athlete.”
Upon joining the team, Whitney quickly assumed a role as a natural-born leader despite her fractured family background.
“She always had advice for you and made you feel you could jump better,” said UCSD sophomore Erin Langford, the 2007 CIF San Diego Section long jump champion at Carlsbad High. “She really is an amazing person. She gets good grades at a school like UCSD, she’s a great athlete and she works crazy hours. I don’t know how she does it.”
Throughout Johnson-Courtright’s college career, she has worked at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside to gain experience in the medical profession. She got her bachelor’s degrees in June, is enrolled in medical school and now works full-time at Tri-City, where her colleagues are just beginning to learn her life story.
Upon receiving her invitation from the Jammers to speak to San Pasqual’s foster students, Johnson-Courtright inquired about adjusting her work schedule so she could have the night free. When her supervisors learned why, they encouraged her to attend and gave her the entire day off.
But her colleagues still don’t know the full extent of her time as a foster child, unless they read this story. She doesn’t bring up the subject, although not out of shame.
“I never wanted to use it as a crutch or think that I’m a weak person,” she said. “My experiences have strengthened me. The entire experience is the reason I have the traits and characteristics that I have now. I learned focus and matured from being a foster child.”
That was the message she hoped she got across in her speech to San Pasqual Academy’s students, a performance she delivered with the gracefulness of the leap that captured the NCAA Division II triple jump title.
“Be thankful for your unique circumstances and find out what drives you,” Johnson-Courtright told the students as she concluded her remarks. “Your family are your classmates, the Jammer family and even me.”
After all, who knows more about the family spirit than Whitney Johnson-Courtright?
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.