Water, Wingspan, and Waiting

Isabella Wylie (C’24) reflects on her time at Georgetown

By Heidi Rupke

Headshot of a young woman wearing a dark colored blazer and white top.

Isabella Wylie (C’24).

Before Isabella Wylie was in kindergarten, she completed her first kids’ triathlon of swimming, biking, and running. As Bella watched with wide eyes, her dad ripped the tassels off her new pink bike from Walmart “so that it would look more professional” for the event. Even though she had swum no more than a few back-and-forths in their family swimming pool, Bella was game to compete against bigger kids. For this four-year-old in Arizona, a flame had been lit.

An athletic family, the Wylies provided their two daughters ample opportunities to move on the field, in the pool, and at the playground. Prayer and church attendance were also mainstays of the household. But when Bella started to swim competitively at age eight and then joined a travel team at age 10, something in the weekend schedule had to give. 

“I loved doing something to the fullest degree,” says Bella. “When I wanted to go all in on my sport, my parents made a difficult decision to support that, even when it meant regular church attendance wasn’t an option.” Faith remained with the family through prayer, deep conversations, and sharing blessings with each other.

All the while, Bella grew as a swimmer. A shorter stature with longer arms–what swimmers call their “wingspan”–allowed Bella to catch a lot of water and excel at her sport. Joy combined with hard work, resulted in a lot of wins and and an offer to swim collegiately at Georgetown.

“When I was younger I wanted to be good [at my sport] for the sake of being good, which was a prideful motivation. It wasn’t about serving others,” says Bella. 

Due to the pandemic, she arrived on campus as a sophomore. Bella had to learn to be proactive and disciplined to balance studies, swimming, and extracurriculars. She struggled to be present both where she was and organized for her next activity. During her junior year, Bella’s prayer life became richer. Listening for the holy spirit gave her the confidence to say no to activities that were too much for her schedule or were not life-giving. 

A group of men and women standing together holding up anti-racism badges.

Bella (front row, left) with some of the leaders of the Georgetown Student Association after facilitating an anti-racism conversation with the student organization. 

A high point in Bella’s swimming career came during her junior year. She was active in the Campus Outreach program (an Affiliated Protestant Ministry at Georgetown) and approached her swim coaches about quitting swimming so that she could focus on other aspects of student life. Bella’s coaches encouraged her to consider using her role as an upperclassman to mentor younger team members. It was about swimming, sure, but this also meant transitioning into more of a leadership role, which would require sacrifice. Bella decided to stay on the swim team and focus on the technicalities of sprinting. The results surprised her.

“I finally started to have fun again and learned how to be a better swimmer. I dropped a lot of time and achieved personal bests at the end of the season,” says Bella. “That was a real breakthrough: I was so close to never doing something again and then it was like a rebirth of love for something I had been doing for twelve years.”

Bella’s faith reached a crisis point when she was injured during her senior year and was unable to sit in class without pain, much less swim. A weighted bar had dropped on her neck, resulting in nerve damage in her cervical spine and chronic pain. She tried various treatments but eventually reached a point where she couldn’t function as a student or an athlete. 

“It’s funny that this difficult chapter happened right after the pinnacle of success of my junior year,” says Bella.

Injuries mean uncertainty, even when bodies are young and fit. Bella was told that she would be out of the water for two months, and there were no guarantees about what would happen next. Through this time of sidelining, Bella realized that swimming was not the core of her identity. She could enjoy it and do it well, but she would outlive her competitive swimming years. When the time came to return to the pool, she felt a deep gratitude that had grown from her absence. While glad to rejoin her teammates in the water, she was also at peace with the end of her collegiate athletic career.

A group of approximately 30 people posing for a photo with the university's president.

Bella (front row) in front of President DeGioia, GUCA members and Tony Mazurkiewicz, chaplain for Athletics (front row, right). (Photo courtesy of GUCA).

Race has been another integral piece of Bella’s journey at Georgetown. As a person of mixed heritage who identifies as Black, Bella has had to find her place within a primarily white institution. Georgetown’s intentionality around open questions of a just society provided space for her exploration. The Black Interfaith Fellowship, founded by Campus Ministry in 2021 was one of those spaces. The fellowship was established in recognition of the systemic obstacles to Black leadership formation in many American religious communities, including Georgetown’s. As part of the Fellowship, Bella learned that Blackness was not a monolith. Stories of other Black men and women helped Bella develop confidence in her own voice as well as recognize how others’ faith inspired their actions. She began to see her story as part of a wider Black experience.

In the spring of 2024, Georgetown University Christian Athletes (GUCA) asked Bella to moderate a conversation with President DeGioia, the current university president and the founder of GUCA. A Black woman sitting on stage with the first president who was not a Jesuit felt like another step in her spiritual discovery. 

“There are times when I’m not sure if we are making any progress [on issues of justice], but sitting on stage with President DeGioia, one of the first people who is performing his own role in a new way, felt hopeful to me,” says Bella.

Hope seems an apt descriptor for Bella’s athletic and faith journeys at Georgetown. An uncertain path of events became walkable because of the intentional deepening of multiple relationships. Bella is finishing her college career with an impressive resumé as well as the fruits of living through injury and doubt. These last two are perhaps the most practical and hard-won gains of her tenure as a Christian athlete at Georgetown.

Isabella Wylie (C’24) double-majored in government and theology with a minor in sociology. She is an undergraduate fellow for the Initiative of Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and a 2023 fellow for Campus Ministry’s Black Interfaith Fellowship.

Photos courtesy of Isabella Wylie (C’24) except where noted.

Heidi Rupke is a freelance writer and editor from Memphis, Tennessee. Her favorite topics of conversation are food and culture.

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