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Professor Waite— Olympian, Professor, Superhuman

UST has a super-human in residence.

At the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio, University of St. Thomas psychology professor Lennie Waite ran for Great Britain. Though, these days, she’s teaching psychology at UST,  providing athletic teams and individual athletes with mental health services at her private sports psychology practice called Waite Performance Strategies LLC, and helping the 2020 and 2024 Olympic committees create mental health services for the track and field athletes in the upcoming games.

Oh, and she’s eight months pregnant too–still getting a run in here and there with the Rice University women’s track team at their practices.

“They definitely think I’m crazy,” Waite said.

She’ll always run, however, because it’s her “way of life,” Waite says, and that way of life has been her reality for a long time.

Waite always enjoyed playing sports from a young age, although she didn’t always enjoy running. She attended Rice University as an undergrad to play soccer, but then transitioned into running full-time for the track and cross-country teams.

“When I first switched to college running, I was not good at all,” Waite said.

Nevertheless, with help from coaches and teammates, she persisted and improved. She actually broke several school records during her time at Rice, including the mile, 1500m, and 3000m steeplechase races, which all require running over numerous hurdles, some of which land the runner in water.

At the end of college, she realized she had become good enough for a potential career in professional running: today, her resume includes competing in multiple Commonwealth games, a few European Team Championships, and a World Championship. As a British citizen, Waite competes for England and Scotland in most of these games.

Time went on and Waite earned a doctorate in industrial psychology from the University of Houston, practiced sports psychology professionally, and got engaged to her now-husband.

Then, 2016 came and she earned a chance to compete on Great Britain’s Olympic team, running in the 3000m steeplechase. Ten days before the Olympics, Waite arrived to Rio with a foot injury–the plantar tissue in her heel became ruptured from all her training.

It made her feel nervous and alone upon arrival, she said, but she soon realized it’s common for athletes to arrive at the games with existing injuries from rigorous training.

“You just don’t hear about these stories, because the stories really focus on the people winning,” Waite said.

Waite worked through the pain, however, and was able to compete.

“Being in the village, having my friends there, supporting my teammates: I really loved that side of the experience,” Waite said. “I really had to balance finding the highs of being there with my own personal sadness of being there injured.”

Today, it’s her combined experience as a professional athlete and sports psychologist that helps her work on the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Committees for USA Track. Waite believes she is one of the only former track-and-field Olympians to also serve on a Olympic committee.

Being in both positions allows her to add a different perspective to the committee. When she made the 2016 Olympic team, for example, she says she had to deal with a sudden, heightened interest from the press during training.

“Because I worked as a sports psychologist, I was really aware of the psychological impact it could have on my performance,” she said, “ but I tried to just soak it up and be grateful to be a somewhat-famous athlete for a small period of time.”

Waite says she wishes there had been more mental health services for athletes when was training for the Olympics between 2012-2016. As a committee member for the upcoming games, she wants to ensure that track and field athletes have easy access to affordable mental health services, including individual therapy and team discussions.

“When you are a professional athlete pursuing a dream like track and field, you don’t have a ton of money or the excess income to pay these types of services,” Waite said.

Sports psychologists understand certain aspects of athletes’ lives that most people don’t, she says: things like losing interest in a sport, suffering injuries that keep you from training, or making numerous sacrifices because of extensive training.

“There are not a ton of people who understand why athletes can be so obsessed with practicing or running all the time,” Waite said.

She still runs weekly and also helps athletes who are training because she understands why.

At the same time, she wants her psychology students to know that she is human and lives life like anyone else (well, almost like anyone else).

She may run like a super-human, but she is indeed human like the rest of us.

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